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How does one build a human-powered helicopter?

They gave the world the first humanpowered “ornithopter” – a plane with bird-like wings that flap. Now, a team led by engineering alumni Todd Reichert and Cameron Robertson is seeking to build a human-powered helicopter.

The team has strong motivation: it hopes to win the Sikorsky Prize, established in 1980 by the American Helicopter Society. To win the $250,000 reward – the third largest monetary prize in aviation history – a team must fly a human-powered helicopter for 60 seconds, and reach an altitude of three metres while remaining in a 10 metre square.

About 20 groups have tried, but no one has been able to claim the prize.

The U of T-led team aimed to have their helicopter built and flying by the end of August. The most difficult aspect of the project, Reichert says, is designing helicopter components that are ultralight and yet won’t break. “We test every structure to failure so we’re sure of the calculations,” he says. “Enormous care must be taken to make sure that nothing is sloppily done.”

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