Pride and Pulleys

University of Maryland Students carefully craft bicycle-like helicopter 

By Jeremy Snow 

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As Brandon Draper sits down, he takes a few deep breaths and puts his feet, adorned with biking shoes, on the pedals. The sophomore aerospace engineering major stretches out to grab the handles as a nearby observer tells him to start when he is ready. Brandon starts pedaling hard and fast as the chains quickly gyrate along the gears. Then, Draper and his vehicle lifts off the ground, hovering about six inches above the floor.

Draper may be pedaling, but he is on no bicycle. His seemingly gravity-defying feat is in thanks to the handmade, human-powered helicopter designed by Team Gamera Inc., a team of graduate and undergraduate students at University of Maryland who have spent five years designing, building and rebuilding a machine that would be able to lift off the ground only using manmade energy.

The result is an 82-pound helicopter shaped like an “X,” featuring two wing-like blades at each end. A pilot sits in the middle and acts as the engine, pedaling to pull strings that spin the blades and allow the aircraft to take flight.

Before building the aircraft, the team wasn’t even sure if building such a machine was possible.

“The difficulty in making a human-powered aircraft is that they need to be very large, while still being light enough to fly,” says Will Staruk, an aerospace graduate student.

Organized by the engineering school in 2008, the team has featured over 100 students working on this aircraft. In the beginning, the team worked from the ground up, carefully studying previous attempts at the prize. Accompanied by excessive testing, they were soon building the plane.

As the team learned more about human-powered aircrafts through trial and error, they were constantly changing parts of the helicopter after test flights would end in failures or crashes.

“It is definitely a completely different craft than what we started with,” says Chip

Andrews, who graduated from Maryland in the spring semester of 2013 and has worked with Gamera for three years. Their most recent model is made of long beams of carbon fiber, a light but tough material. It also features long, thin wings composed of plastic, wood and Styrofoam. These designs, Andrews says, allow for the strongest yet lightest aircraft possible.

The most important improvement was the addition of a control system added around last year, which “moves pulleys and changes the distance the string travels that changes the speed of the rotors, meaning there is less speed and less drift,” says Brandon Gudenius, an aerospace graduate student.

Their invention was ready for their ultimate goal, the Sikorsky Prize. Since 1980, this $250,000 reward is given to the team that could build a successful human-powered aircraft that could fly for 60 seconds and reach an altitude of three meters without drifting out of a 20-by-20 box.

Gamera was almost there. They just needed to finish the control system to keep the plane inside the boundaries, but they were beaten to the finish line. In the summer of 2013, the only other major group actively trying to win the prize, Aerovelo, won. The University of Toronto-based team used a comparable design.

The loss hit Gamera hard, and team’s morale dropped. Yet no one on the team wanted to stop. Despite Canada receiving the prize, Gamera still decided to pursue perfecting their craft for the sake of engineering.

“It would be shame for us to just roll over and admit defeat. That wouldn’t be what this project is about. It’s about giving graduate and undergraduate engineers the ability to build something that flies…” says Andrews.

“We want to demonstrate how good of a craft this actually is.”


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