To Win $250K, Students Create A Working, Human-Powered Helicopter [Video]

Engineering students at the University of Maryland hope to win an aviation prize with their bizarre-looking copter.

To Win $250K, Students Create A Working, Human-Powered Helicopter [Video]

Everyone knows jetpacks will never be practical. But personal helicopters? Maybe. A team of 50 students at the University of Maryland’s A. James Clark School of Engineering spent two years attempting to design and build a helicopter, powered by a single person, that can hover at least three meters off the ground for 60 seconds. Believe it or not, this is one of toughest challenges in aerospace engineering — and whoever succeeds will win a $250,000 prize. The craft, called “Gamera,” didn’t achieve that feat during its test flight, but if its performance is eventually certified by the National Aeronautics Association after May 13th, Gamera will make history anyway.


The good stuff starts at 3:00. Blink and you’ll miss it, though.

Human-powered helicopters have the deck stacked against them.

Gamera’s “flight” reached a whopping 3 to 5 inches of altitude for four seconds of hover time. So what’s the BFD? Well, human-powered helicopters have the deck stacked against them in ways that airplanes don’t. For one thing, helicopters don’t achieve lift by zooming into the air at high speed; the spinning rotors have to create lift from a standstill. This is no problem for a Black Hawk, but for a human being, it’s incredibly hard — so hard, in fact, that Gamera’s four-second hang time will set a world record if the NAA certification goes through.

So how did the Gamera team attempt to solve these challenges? According to the press release, “humans have very low power output for their weight, so the pilot must be extremely strong and fit, yet light.” Solution: a very small, very strong female pilot named Judy Wexler.

The same strategy applied to the craft itself. Even though Gamera is enormous — its two 60-foot-long crossbars create a giant “X,” with 42-foot-long rotors mounted on each tip — it only weighs 210 pounds… including Judy. That’s what you get by using lightweight materials like carbon fiber, mylar, and balsa wood. The extra-long rotors help a lot too, by optimizing the “ground effect” (the increase in lift experienced by wings operating close to the ground).

Kristan Maynard, a judge from the NAA, who witnessed Gamera’s test flight, “announced that the flight looked successful” according to the University of Maryland, but the final call can only be made by analyzing the video. Fingers crossed, U of M!

[Read more about Gamera]

About the author

John Pavlus is a writer and filmmaker focusing on science, tech, and design topics. His writing has appeared in Wired, New York, Scientific American, Technology Review, BBC Future, and other outlets.