Human-Powered Choppers And ‘Useless’ Prizes

And as much as I admire the human-powered helicopter team for finally getting the necessary work done, I have even more respect for the people and companies willing to put real money on the line for such “frivolous” engineering challenges.

Two weeks ago, as many of you have probably heard, a human-powered helicopter, designed and built by students and graduates of the University of Toronto, passed with “flying colors” all the requirements for the Igor I. Sikorsky Human Powered Helicopter Competition. This competition, which has gone unclaimed since its inception in 1980, carries a $250,000 prize purse. It’s not clear how the students involved might split that cash, but either way, it’ll be good beer money for a weekend or two. And if nothing else, it’s commendable for the way it inspires people to achieve things that seem impossible, or seem to have very few real-world applications. Perhaps most importantly, things that have little commercial value in the near (and sometimes far) future.

The Sikorsky prize, on rather simple terms, requires the human-powered chopper to meet a few demands: The craft must fly for at least 60 seconds and reach an altitude of 3 meters (9.8 feet). That’s difficult enough, but the helicopter must also stay within a 10-by-10 meter square (32.8-by-32.8 feet), which means it has to be balanced and not solely designed to gain the required elevation. All of the requirements proved exceptionally difficult to master for years — the first was elevation, and that only fell in 2012.

For the University of Toronto team, its AeroVelo Atlas craft and the cyclist (Todd Reichert) responsible for powering it, meeting all the requirements just a year later is a pretty remarkable achievement. It’s proof that this kind of human-powered flight is possible, albeit completely impractical. But for those who might want to pursue this in the future, there’s a roadmap from which to work.

And as much as I admire that team for finally getting the necessary work done, I have even more respect for the people and companies willing to put real money on the line for such “frivolous” engineering challenges. The Sikorsky Prize is one of a litany of similar cash rewards — X Prize, for example has already handed out a $10 million prize for developing extremely fuel-efficient vehicles. The Ansari XPRIZE for Suborbital Spaceflight is often credited for jump-starting the private space business. A current Google-backed prize aims to get a company to put a rover on the moon to shoot high-definition video.

And X Prize has yet another active challenge — the Tricorder X PRIZE — which is, perhaps, the most ambitious and science fiction-esque of them all. The “tricorder” is a fictional device from the Star Trek universe that can be used to instantly diagnose medical ailments, among other useful tasks. The X Prize seeks a device offers up $10 million for a mobile device that can “diagnose patients better than or equal to a panel of board certified physicians.”

Now, one could argue that a real-life medical tricorder could have a great deal of commercial popularity, particularly among the hypochondriacs who currently seek out the sage advice of WebMD and the like. The problem is that, like the Google-to-the-moon prize, a workable tricorder would take an extraordinary amount of R&D, and it seems almost too science fiction-esque to be truly possible today. While the big-name manufacturers who make medical devices, such as GE, are probably working on the fringes of electronics-aided medicine, this doesn’t seem like something they would be devoting a good deal of thought and engineering into.

To me, the prizes are, in large, filling in a gap in the R&D marketplace that has slowly receded over the last few decades, as much of the government-funded innovation disappeared. I recently had the honor of speaking with Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio, whose district includes Akron and Youngstown, and he had quite a bit to say on that topic, specifically. He said, “Just because the Soviet Union isn’t out there to have a (space) race with, it doesn’t mean it doesn’t reduce the validity of the investments.”

On top of that, he explained in detail the success stories that can come out of these public-private collaborations. Most everyone’s heard a few items from the oft-trotted list of NASA-based innovations, such as scratch-resistant lenses, shoe insoles, smoke detectors, cordless tools and more. But Ryan offered one that’s at on the minds of many in manufacturing and energy, particularly in the Rust Belt region of the country: hydraulic fracturing for natural gas. The technology originated as a Department of Energy research program in the ‘70s, and is now responsible for a plethora of very-cheap energy for manufacturers.

So, are we on the verge of replacing a reliable resource of R&D funding from the government with private generosity? While it’s great that companies like Google are willing to fork over cash for innovations that don’t directly affect their business, we can’t expect that to last forever. Perhaps a more sustainable model is that of Qualcomm, sponsoring the tricorder prize, but there’s an inherent unreliability there. There’s no saying Qualcomm would be interested in funding similar work with any regularity. And once the prize is won, all bets are off — there’s no guarantee that technology will find any real use.

Obviously, when it comes to a human-powered helicopter, the government doesn’t have much to gain — unless, of course, it wants a nation of crash-prone heli-cyclists, which I doubt very much. It’s not really the type of project they would want to fund, despite the materials engineering that went into making a structure that could output enough power at the absolute minimum weight. So yes, leave that kind of work to the companies willing to part ways with cash, but don’t think of it as a replacement for bigger picture innovations that simply can’t be funded by any given manufacturer’s R&D department.

Of course, I say all this just a few days after the NIST announced new grants for innovations that will help eliminate technical challenges in advanced manufacturing, which is an excellent start. But I still think there needs to be a serious, cohesive framework for this kind of innovation, and one that isn’t bound by the whims of private companies. I don’t know what that would look like, but it’s certainly not like the current landscape. And even though those human-powered helicopters might be a little crash-prone at the moment, it does sound like some plain good fun. And maybe that’s enough to get a little more funding, if you ask me.

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