2010 & 2013: UTIAS Alumni Todd Reichert and Cameron Robertson Make Two Historic Flights

By Joan DaCosta

The Sikorsky Challenge was first issued in 1980 by the American Helicopter Society (AHS).  The challenge required that a helicopter, powered solely by the strength of a pilot, attain an altitude of 3 meters, stay aloft for at least 1 minute, and remain within a 10m x 10m square.  The challenge was considered to be so difficult that even the AHS International executive director stated that “It was long seen as impossible to win this.”  From the inception of the prize, countless teams worldwide took on the challenge, but none were successful until two alumni from UTIAS, Todd Reichert and Cameron Robertson, decided to win the prize 33 years after the challenge was issued.

The winning of the Sikorsky prize really began with the work of UTIAS Professor James DeLaurier who developed an analysis for an efficient flapping wing that lead to a successful flight of the world’s first engine-powered, remotely-piloted ornithopter in 1991, and then to the world’s first flight of a full-scale, piloted ornithopter in 2006.

In 2007, Ph.D. candidate Todd Reichert and MASc candidate Cameron Robertson began research for the design of a human powered ornithopter (HPO).  Todd highly refined the analytical model for an efficient flapping wing that was developed by his Ph.D. supervisor, Prof. James DeLaurier.  Cameron Robertson’s non-linear structural modeling became a crucial component of Reichert’s computer code.

Work on the HPO lasted approximately three years.  Ultimately, the weight of the HPO, named “Snowbird”, was just 94 lbs, an outstanding accomplishment given it had a wingspan comparable to that of a Boeing 737.  On July 31, 2010, piloted by Reichert, “Snowbird” made its historic flight and garnered headlines around the world.

With their graduate studies completed, Reichert and Robertson formed a company called AeroVelo, and building on the success of the HPO design, AeroVelo entered the race to win the Sikorsky Challenge in January 2012.  To design the human powered helicopter (HPH) AeroVelo was able to modify and apply techniques that they had developed for the HPO.  The final, and winning, configuration of the HPH, called “Atlas”, was 122 lbs with a maximum diagonal dimension of 46.9 m.  It is the most efficient helicopter ever constructed.  On June 13, 2013, Aerovelo’s human powered helicopter ”Atlas” won the Sikorsky Challenge and its $250,000 prize and enjoyed media coverage in outlets ranging from Popular Mechanics and Aviation Week, to the front page of the Wall Street Journal, as well as outlets in Japan, Germany, Australia, New Zealand, and England, to name just some.