Saturday, May 3, 2014


Aerovelo Atlas World Record

I was super privileged to be allowed to observe the aerovelo team as they broke the world records for human powered helicopter flight (duration this time, they broke height a few months before this).  It occurred back in September, just after the Toronto Mini Maker Faire, in an indoor soccer field about a half hour north of downtown Toronto.  You can watch spectacular videos on their website of the machine in operation, but it's hard to tell from those videos just how fragile the whole thing is!  It weighs considerably less than a human - if memory serves, something like 90lbs.  This was vividly brought home once when a rider slipped on the pedal (fortunately before liftoff!), and the entire machine shook - it became very clear that one wrong move by the rider could actually destroy the thing.  And what a thing it is - super beautiful!  A marvel of engineering and craftsmanship, using space age materials.  For these duration flights, their actual limiting factor wasn't how much work it is (though I do believe you have to peddle harder than most people would be capable of), but a technical limitation in the machine: the ropes from the copters to the central bike are unidirectional, i.e. they are of finite length, and you simply pull them from one spool to another.  Once the rope length is exhausted, it's done, you can't fly anymore.  The main reason they did this is weight savings - the extra rope to double it back, and the hardware necessary to tension it in that case (against the flex of the machine, which is quite large!) vastly outweigh the unidirectional coil.  And that machine is all about weight vs lift!  Anyway, it was an amazing experience to watch a human fly like that, the machine is actually quite quiet, and very elegant, they are off the ground before you realize what's happening.  The level of design engineering they did is also incredible - apparently everything was modeled long before they built it, but even so there was a lot of variables they were swapping around in the actual machine, for instance, the type of rope between the bike and the copters.  I heard they actually repeated the flights the next day, using a different, much longer, stretchy rope, hoping to set a much higher record, but apparently that rope was a total bust - they couldn't get off the ground!  Another interesting fact is that if the rider stops peddling, the machine immediately falls to the ground - there is zero momentum, because the mass is so low.  There was also a lot of fussing about balance - there is no mechanism to control the relative speeds of the four copters, so the only control of movement/drift is by the biker shifting their own weight.  And of course the machine is bound by the soccer field, which as you can see from my photos, isn't a lot larger than the machine, so drift actually ends a lot of flights.  

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