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First flight of a solar-powered, piloted helicopter

23 September 2016

A University of Maryland student team achieved aviation heights by successfully lifting a helicopter and passenger through the sole use of solar power.

Testing the helicopter (Credit: University of Maryland/YouTube)

After successfully completing the longest duration flight for a human-powered helicopter in fall of 2013, the UMD Gamera Team, a student team originally inspired in 2012 by the American Helicopter Society’s Sikorsky Prize, has continued raising the bar. In 2014, a new group of undergraduate students took over Team Gamera, reinventing itself as Solar Gamera to test the feasibility of applying solar power in achieving human helicopter flight.

With materials science major Michelle Mahon in the cockpit, Solar Gamera achieved two successful flights, flying for nine seconds and gaining more than a foot of height.

"It's just a matter of drift before [Solar Gamera] gets longer flights," explained Ph.D. student William Staruk. "It's easier to trim than human-powered helicopter thanks to electronic controls."

While electronic controls offer an advantage over Gamera's human-powered predecessor, the challenge of lifting a 100ft square rotorcraft solely through solar power has posed its own set of challenges.

“This is about inspiring and educating students, that’s our product here," explained Distinguished Professor and Gamera faculty advisor Inderjit Chopra. “No one thought that solar energy could lift a person [via helicopter]."

The craft may never engage in long-distance flight, but through this project's immense hands-on opportunities, students hone their engineering chops and find focus for their future.

Video courtesy of University of Maryland.


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