Behind a Human-Powered Helicopter – Meeting Cameron Robertson

31 Jan

(This interview happened last fall. I finally had a chance to write this up for real…)

One of the perks of my job is to meet cool (and famous haha)  people. By now, through my job I have shaken hands with the 2013 Nobel Prize Winner in Physics David Wineland, met Canadian Space Agency Astronaut David Saint-Jacques, had brunch with former host of Daily Planet and Quirks and Quarks Jay Ingram, and chatted with Malcolm Longair, physicist and author of many cosmology books.

Today, I want to talk about the  winners of the $250,000 Igor I. Sikorsky Human-Powered Helicopter Prize. This is the 3rd largest monetary prize in aviation history. The challenge: Build a human-powered helicopter that will “hover” in the air for at least 60 seconds, at the height of at least 3 meters above the ground, drifting only within an area of 10 metres by 10 metres.

You might think that the winners of this 33 year old challenge were seasoned engineers from aviation companies, or some professors in engineering.

In fact, the winners were a team led by Cameron Robertson and Todd Reichert, who finished their graduate degrees out of the University of Toronto just a few years ago. Yay Canada!

IMG_5642

Meeting Cameron Robertson

I had the opportunity to meet Cameron via my friend Daniel, who saw me bragging about having met an astronaut on Facebook the day before. When I arrived, Cameron was just wrapping up his conversation with an undergrad engineering student about his project. I thought to myself, “hey, it is kinda cool that he took some time to chat with the students.”

Cameron and Todd met at the University of Toronto, both graduate students for the Toronto Institute for Aerospace Studies at the time. The idea of taking on the Sikorsky Challenge took shape during their time there; when Todd finished his PhD, Cameron quit his job, and both of them started chasing after the seemingly impossible dream of building a human-powered helicopter.

So how hard can this be? (hint: VERY)

While evolution has given us many advantages over other species, physically we cannot compete with the machinery that we build based on our knowledge of science and technology. In fact, the amount of human power we can output is about the same as the amount of power given by a cordless drill. So imagine using your cordless drill at home to power a helicopter…

As soon as they made their intention clear, they were told off by others – including many big names and those who have studied aerodynamics and engineering for their whole lives. After all, it was a 33-year prize that nobody had been able to claim. I asked Cameron, “so how did you keep going when everyone was telling you that it is impossible?”

“You definitely need to have passion for what you are doing. Then, you really must know that you are on the right track, and that in your heart you know it is feasible.”

The prize was for a subject that they love, and there was enough financial incentive to make it seem worthwhile (obviously, only if you win, but that was enough to drive them forward). “Challenge drives technical innovation,” said Cameron. He and Todd started the company AeroVelo , and managed to raise money from a Kickstarter campaign, from a few companies, and through the grants available from the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale. Because most of the money went into their project, at one point the team of ~10 people were living in one house to save money and to make the project happen (!!).

“So, what do you think that would have made it easier for you if you were to start this all over again?” Cameron pointed out that there really is a need for better community support for small businesses started by students – like small seed grants – so that they could find better footing faster. Students could also use more training in entrepreneurship and business development.

Here is their flight to win the prize

Cameron pointed out it was a good thing that Todd is extremely fit – it took a whole lot of work to fly the helicopter!

Record flight -near maximum altitude of 3.3 metres. Images from http://www.aerovelo.com/ Photographer: Martin Turner - Visiblize.com. For higher resolution images, please contact Martin Turner.

Record flight -near maximum altitude of 3.3 metres. Images from http://www.aerovelo.com/ Photographer: Martin Turner – Visiblize.com. For higher resolution images, please contact Martin Turner.

When we see something like this covered by the media, it is easy to see only the glory of the prize. But behind every prize there is a story about the difficulties, failures, and dismissals encountered along the way. And that tale is the same for many other scientists, engineers, and entrepreneurs. I believe that is why Cameron spent the time to chat with students, to share his personal experience, and to support those just starting out.

The AeroVelo team is already onto their next project, building a human-powered high speed land vehicle.  They blogged about their trip to the Battle Mountain race just recently. It seems now that the sky is no longer a limit for AeroVelo.  Good luck!

***

PS 1 The team was also built the Snowbird, a human-powered ornithopter to fly using a flapping-wing design, much like a bird. We didn’t get a chance to chat too much about this though. Check out the video – it is pretty cool.

Also, Cameron and Todd talked about their journey during the TedxWesternU:

And their story was also covered by Wired, Popular Mechanics, and the National Post.

PS 2 Thanks my friend Daniel Zaide for introducing me to Cameron 😀

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