June 25, 2012 at 5:31 PM ET
A team at the University of Maryland has blown away a long-standing (or long-hovering) record for human-powered flight. A Japanese team stayed aloft for 19 seconds in 1994, and no one has been able to do better until Thursday, when the Maryland team stayed aloft for 50 seconds. They fell just short, however, of the 60 seconds required to qualify for a decades-old $250,000 prize.
Gamera II is the name of the helicopter the team constructed in order to claim the Sikorsky prize, created in 1980 in memory of the helicopter pioneer Igor Sikorsky. The contest requires that the craft reach 3 meters of altitude — and that it stays there for a full minute.
The newest version of the craft weighs only 71 pounds, 30 less than the previous one, which stayed aloft for 11 seconds in 2011. Gamera II harvests power from arm movements as well as pedals, transmitting more power to the four large rotors. These and other improvements allowed the team to break the 18-year-old record and post a time of 50 seconds in the air at 2 feet up. Watch the video of that flight below:
The team will continue to make attempts at the 60-second goal, though they would still need to go significantly higher to claim the prize money, even if they hit the minute mark. The solution is not as easy as simply pedaling harder. Gamera II takes advantage of an aerodynamic characteristic of low-altitude craft called ground effect, which reduces the energy needed to hover, and that advantage decreases the higher the craft goes.
The researchers from Maryland are not the only ones working on the problem: A private team called Atlas recently ran a successful Kickstarter campaign to raise some funding for their attempt on the Sikorsky prize. The requirements of the prize may be straightforward, but they are also extremely difficult, so chances are it will take some time and effort, not to mention money and materials, to make it happen.
Devin Coldewey is a contributing writer for msnbc.com. His personal website is coldewey.cc.