Igor Sikorsky believed that individuals provide the spark that moves mankind ahead. This competition continues his legacy by inspiring ingenuity in the next generation of engineers who will design our industry’s future. We believe strongly in the power of challenge.
- Mark Miller, Vice President of Research and Engineering at Sikorsky Aircraft
The Sikorsky Human-Powered Helicopter Competition was first announced in 1980 with a $20,000 cash prize. In the years that followed many teams from all over the world took on the challenge, with two teams managing brief lift-off. In 2009, with the prize still unclaimed, Sikorsky Aircraft Corporation increased it’s pledge to $250,000, making the Sikorsky prize the 3rd largest aviation prize in history, next to the Ansari X-Prize, which ushered in an era of commercial space flight with Scaled Composite’s SpaceShipOne, and the Green Flight Challenge, recently awarded to the Pipstrel USA for the development of a 4 passenger electric aircraft capable of achieving the equivalent of 100 mpg at 100 mph. The Sikorsky prize is amongst good company as one of the most challenging feats in aviation history. Thus far there have been over 30 serious attempts at the prize with three teams having achieved brief periods of flight.
As with other human-powered aircraft, the trick to achieving the required efficiency is an incredibly large span, with an unbelievably low weight. The first helicopter to achieve liftoff was the DaVinci III, boasting an incredible 100 foot diameter, weighing only 97 lbs and using propellers on the tips to eliminate rotor torque. After nearly a decade of research at the California Polytechnic State University, the DaVinci III achieved 7.1 seconds of flight and reached an altitude of 8 inches in December 1989.
Five years later in 1994, the Japanese-built Yuri I sustained flight for 19.26 seconds at 0.2 metres altitude. The Yuri I was a quad-rotor design, with each of the 10 metre diameter rotors being supported by a lightweight truss structure. Many attempts followed after the Yuri I, including further designs from Nihon University, new designs from Ecole de Technologie Superieur in Montreal, the University of British Columbia, Saitama Institute of Technology and Purdue University. However, none succeeded in achieving liftoff.
In 2011, the Gamera team at the University of Maryland achieved the first sustained flight with a female pilot, eventually extending the flight time to 11.4 seconds. The design is very similar to the Yuri I with a truss structure supporting the slightly larger 13 meter rotors. In 2012 the same team with a revised design, Gamera 2.1, documented separate flights of 65 seconds and 9ft (2.7m) altitude. Although the altitude requirement is still just short of the Sikorsky Prize requirement, it is important to note that a single flight satisfying both goals is a substantial leap over a flight that satisfies only one.
Though achievements to date are nothing less than extraordinary, yet the Sikorsky prize remains unclaimed. It will require true innovation and highly refined aero-structural optimization to achieve such an ambitious challenge.