How An “Impossible” Aviation Challenge Led To An Innovation Breakthrough

The winners of the Sikorsky Human Powered Helicopter Competition didn’t “think outside the box.” They just chose the right box to think in.

How An “Impossible” Aviation Challenge Led To An Innovation Breakthrough

On June 13, an enormous, ridiculous-looking pedal-powered contraption wafted itself into midair and made history. The helicopter, called Atlas, was designed to win an aviation challenge–the Igor I. Sikorsky Human Powered Helicopter Competition–that had defeated scores of aircraft designers and engineers for 33 years. The task sounds simple: Create a human-powered aircraft that can hover three meters in the air for at least a minute without drifting outside a 10-meter square. But satisfying those constraints meant designing an aircraft like nothing you’ve ever seen:


“Until a few weeks ago, the people who literally wrote the book on the helicopter said that this problem is too hard–that this is actually physically impossible,” Cameron Robertson, Atlas’s chief structural engineer, tells Co.Design. So how did Robertson and his team at AeroVelo–which he describes as “not specialists”–crack the problem? The answer is in that ungainly, ridiculous-looking contraption itself. It’s not anyone’s idea of a “practical” aircraft. It’s designed to do one thing, and one thing only: Win the Sikorsky prize, by any means necessary. “We weren’t afraid to construct a Rube Goldberg machine,” Robertson says.

This kind of innovation strategy often goes by clichéd names like “lateral thinking” or “thinking outside the box.” But according to Robertson, “the box” was actually the key to succeeding where 33 years’ worth of other designs had failed. Atlas won the Sikorsky prize by zeroing in on the right box to think inside–and then rigorously, intensely, and persistently analyzing it. “Achieving the so-called ‘impossible,'” he says, “is a matter of removing unnecessary constraints, and understanding what’s in the box.”

The “most salient feature” of Atlas’s winning design, according to Robertson, is its sheer size. It relies on four pedal-powered rotors for lift–and each one is 10 meters in diameter. “Atlas is the size of every other human-powered helicopter [in the competition], combined,” he says. Other design teams knew that size was important, too. “Everyone else said, ‘We’re on a campus, so let’s find the biggest gym to build and test this aircraft in,'” Robertson says. “Which translates to, ‘How big is the gym we have? Let’s build our helicopter that big.’ But that’s not a real constraint on designing the ‘copter. That’s artificial. So we removed it.”

By realizing that the literal size of “the box” wasn’t actually relevant to solving their problem, AeroVelo tested Atlas in an enormous indoor soccer stadium near Toronto. But that insight wasn’t enough to make the rest of the process simple. Robertson, chief aerodynamicist Todd Reichert, and the rest of the team spent months digitally modeling the physical parameters of their newly liberated problem: “structure, aerodynamics, engine thermodynamics, pilot physiology, kinematics, all these different design considerations,” Robertson says. They also programmed an “optimizer” to take these variables and relentlessly iterate on possible designs–not with perfect fidelity but with a “good enough” set of tolerances. “Then you hit ‘go,’ and it designs the helicopter,” Robertson says. “It only takes five minutes to run on a laptop.”

It’s often said that solving tough design problems isn’t about bashing your way to a difficult solution as much as it’s about bashing your way to the right question. Atlas is indeed a Rube Goldberg machine–not much good for anything but winning the Sikorsky Prize. But as a proof of concept for an innovation strategy, Atlas’s example can apply to problems far more serious than hovering a furiously pedaling human being in midair.

“We don’t have 50 years to reevaluate our infrastructure, address climate change, or deal with other ‘impossible’ problems,” Robertson asserts. “Getting 2% improvement is no longer acceptable as the right answer. We all need to start really questioning the state that we’re in and how to move beyond it at a much more rapid pace than ever before, and this approach of removing artificial or unnecessary constraints is one way to do that. We knew nothing about helicopters, but we were able to do the impossible. Everybody can become better problem solvers and global citizens by inhabiting that state of mind.”

[Read more about Atlas here.]

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.