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UMD Students Break Record Flying Man-Powered Helicopter

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Dennis Bodewitz, assistant research scientist at astronomy dept at the University of Maryland, prepares to take flight.
Markette Smith
Dennis Bodewitz, assistant research scientist at astronomy dept at the University of Maryland, prepares to take flight.

For 35 seconds yesterday, a University of Maryland scientist clad in full cycling gear pedaled his way into the air in a craft made of styrofoam, string, and good intentions. 

The machine hovered, just like a motorized chopper. But instead of the pulsing throb that you usually hear with a regular helicopter, this aircraft sounded like spokes spinning on a bicycle wheel.

The pilot, Colin Gore, is part of a group of University of Maryland aerospace students who set an unofficial world record yesterday for the longest time a man-powered helicopter has flown in the air.

The engineering students beat the unofficial world record set by a Japanese team in 1994. The Japanese studentswere only able to fly their machine for about 20 seconds.

"It's wonderful," says one of his colleagues, Dennis Bodewitz, an assistant research professor of aeronautics. "You can feel how the whole structure actually likes being in the air."

The vessel is called the "Gamera," after a Japanese word from old monster movies that means "Flying Turtle." The researchers chose it to represent the university's mascot, the terrapin.  

Half a minute may seem like a short time in the air, but no one else in the world has been able to fly such a contraption for that period of time. That's why, for 30 years, no one has won the American Helicopter Society's Human Powered Helicopter flight competition. The UMD team is competing to be the first.

"This hasn't been done before," says Darryl Pines, dean of UMD's engineering school. "It seems like a crazy project, but if they achieve, then it says that if they can put their minds together, they can engineer a system and make it happen. That will inspire not only their generation, but a future generation."

The masterminds behind the human helicopter machine are a group of nearly 100 students who've been working on it since 2008. Last year, they got it to fly for 11 seconds. Ph.D. candidate Ben Berry describes how the crew re-structured this year's aircraft to be more successful. 

"So everything is as weight optimized as we think we can get it," Berry says. "And this year we are 30 lbs lighter. Of course you can always be lighter, but this is our best shot."

Berry and his classmates hope to reach a flight duration of 60-seconds this summer. That's the minimum time required to win the helicopter society's competition — which carries a $250,000 prize.

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