Engineers Vying for $250,000 Sikorsky Prize, Unclaimed for 30 years

By: | April 30th, 2013

In 1983 the American Helicopter Society put up a $250,000 award to go to the first group that could build a helicopter capable of hovering for one minute, reach a height of 9.8 ft. (3m) and stay within a 32.8 ft. (10m) square area while being powered by one human. A team of engineers from the University of Maryland’s Rotocraft Center have the prize in their cross-hairs and their latest creation, Gamera, has flown for 4 seconds!

The challenge: to build a helicopter light enough to fly but strong enough to carry a human with the leg power equivalent of a 0.7 horsepower motor.


This human powered helicopter spans 100 feet, has four rotors and weighs just 80 pounds. Stability problems come from the leg motion of the human pilot. A normal experimental small craft requires a 12 hp motor and so human powered aviation was thought impossible.

Progress and Issues

Engineering of the vehicle has been excellent but ergonomics continue to pose a challenge that an industrial design specialist might be able to overcome. One easy improvement would be to use bicycle lock foot pedals to better utilize the muscular power of the rider in both directions.

Human-Powered Helicopters: Straight Up Difficult from NPR on Vimeo.

The revolving triangle bar system may also cause unnecessary air resistance, helicopter take off is especially difficult and the relative position of the pilot and the rotors affect the stability of the structure and the safety of landing.

David Russell Schilling

David enjoys writing about high technology and its potential to make life better for all who inhabit planet earth.

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