Sustainable Energy Through Product Development: The human engine poses many problems. That didn't stop one team from creating a human-powered helicopter (and much more)

By: August 21 2013
Tags & Topics: 3D Printing Innovation

Sustainable energy and product development are two of the most innovative concepts we have seen this year. When combined effectively, powerful results can be achieved.

That was the case for one Canadian company looking to revolutionize the capabilities of the human engine.

Enter Cameron Robertson and Todd Reichert. They are the VP Structures and VP Aerodynamics, respectively at Aerovelo - a design and innovation lab, focused on high-profile, thought-provoking engineering projects.

Thier mission? “To inspire creativity and challenge the norms of conventional design, doing more with less and leading the way to a healthy and sustainable future.”

Well that sounds a lot like what 3D engineering aims to do.

With 3D engineering, any user truly has the freedom of design – if someone can imagine it, it can be created, tested and produced. 3D engineering encompasses a wide spectrum of technology. This includes 3D printing, 3D laser scanning, reverse engineering, CAD design.

When you connect people to these technologies, they are able to achieve greater capability, scalability, and efficiency.

“3D engineering is critical to everything that we do. We need to conceptualize, visualize, design and create products on extremely short time lines and 3D engineering allows that to happen,” said Robertson. “It plays a huge part to our dynamic and creative approach to engineering problems. 3D printing and rapid prototyping basically hit all our hot buttons in terms of things we would like to be doing and pushing the cutting edge of the prototyping which we’re interested in doing.”

3D engineering has been at the forefront of innovation across almost every industry. From medical models and bionic 3D prints, to the latest fashion trends, 3D engineering is empowering large companies and individual investors alike.

This diverse portfolio allowed Aerovelo to attack different channels with 3D engineering as their weapon.

Aerovelo has three major projects on-the-go, all of which are embracing the challenge of one of the most inefficient power sources known to man: the human engine. The average human can maintain about one-half horsepower.


Past

At a recent TEDTalk, Robertson held up a small electric motor from a cordless drill at the University of Western Ontario.

“The best that you or I could hope to do is produce about as much power as this fist sized device,” said Roberson.

This led the Aerovelo team to develop a human-powered helicopter, a human-powered ornithopter (an aircraft that flies by flapping its wings) and human-powered speedbikes.

Reichart, said to the audience that, “before we understand what’s outside the box, we need to understand what’s inside the box.”

That proverbial box has been 3D laser scanned, edited with CAD software and 3D printed.

Product development efforts have been made much more efficient in recent times with 3D engineering. Design flaws that were once uncorrectable, expensive mistakes can now be redesigned with the click of a mouse or reprinted in a few, short hours. Digital databases of 3D laser scanned models make organization and access to important files unprecedentedly simple.

Reichart reminded his audience to, “free yourself of unnecessary constraints,” and that, “setbacks are often steps forward. Everything is recoverable.”

The team successfully developed the “Snowbird.” The ornithopter was towed into the air by a car and on August 2nd, 2010, the “Snowbird” maintained both altitude and airspeed were or 19.3 seconds.

Present

Next for the team was a human powered helicopter. Cameron and Todd were trying to earn the prestigious Igor Sikorsky Human-Powered Helicopter Award, which was initiated 33 years ago . The monumental feat requires a human to hover to an altitude of 3 metres under his/her own power, and hover  for at least 1 minute.

Oh and the helicopter had to stay within a 10 metre by 10 metre radius.

Many had tried, but for 33 years, the award which was accompanied by a $250,000 prize, remained unclaimed.

 That is until early July in 2013, when Reichart manned the machine and produced the necessary one horsepower to operate and maintain flight for one entire minute.

After countless hours and many painful falls, Aerovelo had made history.

The winning vehicle is called the Atlas, and was designed by a team of about 20 students and young professionals. The Atlas weighs in at a mere 55 kg, however, it spans a sprawling 49.4m or 162 feet (over half a football field).

Robertson said the team was motivated by the prospect of "showing people that impossible is nothing."

Future

The team is not stopping at their two feats.

Robertson said the next lofty challenge is building an extremely lightweight bicycle that can reach human-powered speeds of 120 kilometers per hour (75 miles per hour).

“Although there has been some controversy (with 3D engineering), we wish to show the public with our products that rapid prototyping is extremely beneficial and plays a big role in the infrastructure which we have today,” said Robertson.

“Over the past few years, the fastest vehicles we have worked on, the fastest are called ‘Speedbikes.’”

Robertson says the potential for everyday, practical use is there.

“The speed bikes are capable of reaching speeds well in excess of 100 km/hr, while still having the utility necessary for carrying groceries and traveling safely within a city."


Robertson and Reichart find themselves in the midst of a transitional period. They hope their work demonstrates the eye-opening capabilities of engineers. We are currently stuck in the paradigm of cars and transportation that consumes non-renewable resources. “

People in the 50’s said no one will ever beat 50 miles an hour on a bike but people have pushed 80, the sky is the limit and anything is possible,” said Robertson.

“In the future, these kinds of engineering challenges are going to become more frequent – as resources become scarce, and as sustainability becomes more urgent.”

Aerovelo’s medley of human-powered projects has proven to be challenging. However, with dedication, creativity and some help from 3D engineering, the team is removing constraints, recovering setbacks and making what seems impossible possible.

 

 

 

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