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AeroVelo's winning flight

AeroVelo's winning flight (AeroVelo)

STEM in Context

The Hovering Human

Based on an article by Shakib Rahman

Summary

Learn how a team of Canadian engineers used Bernoulli’s Principle to design a human-powered helicopter. It set a world record for human-powered hovering flight!

Have you ever ridden a bike? If so, then you have ridden a human-powered vehicle. Some vehicles, like cars or buses, use gas or electricity to move. Human-powered vehicles use the strength of human muscle to move.

Can you think of other human-powered vehicles that move on the ground? How about human-powered vehicles that move in the air?

That second question is harder, isn’t it? Human-powered flight has been a challenge for a long time. For example, the famous scientist Leonardo Da Vinci sketched several human-powered aircraft. That was back in the 15th century!

da Vinci's human-powered helicopter
Leonardo da Vinci’s design for a human-powered helicopter (Source: Leonardo da Vinci [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons).

Did you know?

Engineers who design aircraft are called aeronautical engineers.

For years, many scientists thought that designing a human-powered helicopter was impossible. In 1980, there was a prize announced for anyone who could do this. It is called the Sikorsky Prize. In 2013, a team of engineers from Toronto finally won it!  

Did you know?

The Sikorsky Prize was named after a Russian-American pilot and engineer named Igor I. Sikorsky. He designed and flew the world's first large multi-engine airplane. He also designed the first mass-produced helicopter.

The team was from a company named AeroVelo. Their helicopter is named Atlas.

Atlas Human-Powered Helicopter - AHS Sikorsky Prize Flight (2013) by Aerovelo Inc (1:44 min.).

It’s not easy to design an aircraft that a person must both power and fly! It is even more difficult to keep that aircraft hovering over a fixed spot. It takes some complex engineering and physics to power and maintain flight

Did you know?

AeroVelo also created the fastest human-powered vehicle, the Eta Speedbike. It can hit speeds of 144 km/h!

To get off the ground, helicopters need to generate lift. They do this with rotors, which on AeroVelo’s Atlas are turned by pulleys. Rotors are rotating airfoils

Bernoulli's Principle explains how shapes on an aircraft help generate lift. Each rotor on a helicopter is an airfoil that has a curved upper surface. When air flows over the curved upper surface, it travels faster than the air flowing underneath the airfoil. This pulls the helicopter upward. 

Rotors with a larger surface area can help provide more lift. AeroVelo’s helicopter had four large rotors. Each rotor was 20.4 metres long.

Any human-powered helicopter has to be light. It needs to have more force lifting it upward than weight pulling it downward. Weight is the force applied on an object from gravity. 

The AeroVelo engineers used strong, lightweight materials to build the helicopter. They mostly used carbon fibre tubes. They also used a lightweight but strong type of wood called balsa wood. 

Comparison of Atlas helicopter, airliner and person
Diagram comparing the size of the Atlas helicopter (A) to a Boeing 737 airliner (B) and a human (C) (© 2019 Let’s Talk Science based on a diagram via Aerovelo).

The entire craft weighed 55 kg. That is about the same weight as a small female Golden Retriever dog. That weight doesn’t include the mass of the pilot, Todd Reichert. Mr. Reichert sat on the seat of a bicycle. As you can imagine, that bicycle was heavily modified!  

Mr. Reichart and the AeroVelo helicopter hovered 3.3 metres above the ground. That’s a little bit higher than a basketball net! The aircraft stayed at this height for just over a minute. To be exact, it hovered for 64.11 seconds. 

Mr. Reichert set a world record for the longest human-powered hovering. What a surprise for those people who said it was impossible!
 

Starting Points

Connecting and Relating
  • If you could, would you try to fly a human-powered aircraft? Explain.
  • Would you want to own a human-powered aircraft? Explain.
     
Connecting and Relating
  • If you could, would you try to fly a human-powered aircraft? Explain.
  • Would you want to own a human-powered aircraft? Explain.
     
Relating Science and Technology to Society and the Environment
  • What are the advantages and disadvantages of giving out prizes for creating new technologies?
  • Do you think that human-powered aircraft will become a part of everyday life? Why or why not?
     
Relating Science and Technology to Society and the Environment
  • What are the advantages and disadvantages of giving out prizes for creating new technologies?
  • Do you think that human-powered aircraft will become a part of everyday life? Why or why not?
     
Exploring Concepts
  • Explain Bernoulli’s principle in your own words.
  • Why is it difficult for humans to generate enough lift to get an aircraft off of the ground?
  • What is the role of the “curve” on an airfoil?
  • How can the design and building materials of a human-powered aircraft help it fly?
     
Exploring Concepts
  • Explain Bernoulli’s principle in your own words.
  • Why is it difficult for humans to generate enough lift to get an aircraft off of the ground?
  • What is the role of the “curve” on an airfoil?
  • How can the design and building materials of a human-powered aircraft help it fly?
     
Nature of Science/Nature of Technology
  • What innovations in building materials helped engineers construct Atlas? Explain.
  • How does the development of an aircraft, such as Atlas, show the relationship between science and technology? Explain.
     
Nature of Science/Nature of Technology
  • What innovations in building materials helped engineers construct Atlas? Explain.
  • How does the development of an aircraft, such as Atlas, show the relationship between science and technology? Explain.
     
Media Literacy
  • Have you ever seen a human-powered aircraft on TV or in a movie? If so, how did it work?
     
Media Literacy
  • Have you ever seen a human-powered aircraft on TV or in a movie? If so, how did it work?
     
Recommended Learning Strategies
  • This article and embedded video can be used to support teaching and learning in Engineering & Technology, Math and Physics related to flight, engineering and design, forces of flight, and Bernoulli's Principle. Concepts included are aircraft, aeronautical engineers, flight rotors, airfoils, lift, Bernoulli's Principle, weight and surface area. 
  • Before or after reading this article, teachers could have students do a hands-on science activity, such as building and testing paper rotors. The design and build could be followed by a discussion about the features of the rotors that impacted their flight.
  • Reading and viewing could also be preceded by showing students examples of flying machines from the past. Examples can be found online. (e.g., 11 Flying machines that came before the Wright Brothers)
  • After reading the article and viewing the video, teachers could have students complete a Concept Definition Web learning strategy to consolidate their understanding of Bernoulli's Principle. Download ready-to-use reproducibles using the Concept Definition Web learning strategy for this article in [Google doc] and [PDF].
  • To consolidate learning, teachers could provide students with an Exit Slip. Download ready-to-use reproducibles using the Exit Slip learning strategy for this article in [Google doc] and [PDF].
Recommended Learning Strategies
  • This article and embedded video can be used to support teaching and learning in Engineering & Technology, Math and Physics related to flight, engineering and design, forces of flight, and Bernoulli's Principle. Concepts included are aircraft, aeronautical engineers, flight rotors, airfoils, lift, Bernoulli's Principle, weight and surface area. 
  • Before or after reading this article, teachers could have students do a hands-on science activity, such as building and testing paper rotors. The design and build could be followed by a discussion about the features of the rotors that impacted their flight.
  • Reading and viewing could also be preceded by showing students examples of flying machines from the past. Examples can be found online. (e.g., 11 Flying machines that came before the Wright Brothers)
  • After reading the article and viewing the video, teachers could have students complete a Concept Definition Web learning strategy to consolidate their understanding of Bernoulli's Principle. Download ready-to-use reproducibles using the Concept Definition Web learning strategy for this article in [Google doc] and [PDF].
  • To consolidate learning, teachers could provide students with an Exit Slip. Download ready-to-use reproducibles using the Exit Slip learning strategy for this article in [Google doc] and [PDF].

Learn more

World Human Powered Vehicle Association

Find information and photos about human-powered vehicles on land, in water and in air.
 

References

Robertson, C. D., & Reichert, T. M. (2015). Design and development of the atlas human-powered helicopter. Journal of the American Helicopter Society60(1), 1–15. DOI: 10.4050/jahs.60.011006

 

Shakib Rahman

Shakib Rahman is a coordinator with Let's Talk Science at the UofA.  He an avid soccer player and a sports nut in general.  He also has a a passion for science, science literature and TV. In his spare time, he writes science articles, some of which you can read here at CurioCity.