’04 grad Cameron Robertson working on design of human-powered helicopter
By Mike McGann, Editor, UnionvilleTimes.com
Since the days of Leonardo Da Vinci, man has dreamt of powering a helicopter by his own set of arms and legs — the ultimate air bicycle.
For these 500 years, many have tried and failed, but a Unionville High School grad is playing a key role on a team that seems poised for a breakthrough.
Cameron Robertson, a 2004 graduate of UHS, is working with Dr. Todd Reichert and a team of Toronto-based engineering professionals and students to build the Atlas human-powered helicopter as part of the AeroVelo team.
They hope to capture the $250,000 Sikorsky Prize, awarded to the first successful human-powered helicopter to hover for one minute and reach an altitude of three meters. Although there have been multiple attempts to win the prize since it was announced in 1980, no one has been able to make it work.
“It’s a really interesting engineering challenge,” Robertson said this week via phone from Toronto. The challenge, he said, is building a craft light enough to be powered by the physical power — typically pedaling — of a single human.
Robertson and his colleagues are using a combination of exotic light-weight materials — carbon fiber tubes — and custom modeling software to optimize weight, balance and performance. Many of the challenges are similar to a previous project the team worked on, an ornithopter — or flapping wing aircraft.
The project is being funded through private sponsorship and a campaign on the crowd-funding site Kickstarter — with a goal of raising $30,000 to fund the project (they’ve raised a little more than $17,000 so far with about a week to go). The total project has a budget of $170,000.
And based on his track record, Robertson, a former Chadds Ford resident, seems poised to be part of another aeronautical breakthrough.
“We feel like we have the design expertise, after working on the ornithopter,” he said.
The trick, he says, is size — but, understandably doesn’t want to elaborate much and give away trade secrets. But, in general, the vehicle needs a lot of lift area, which means big, but limited power, it must also be light. That’s the real engineering challenge, he said.
“A lot of what we’re looking for is a significant increase in efficiency,” he said.
Robertson has an M.A.Sc. in Aerospace Engineering from the University of Toronto. He was part of the team that designed and built the Snowbird, the first successful human-powered ornithopter (flapping-wing aircraft). His expertise in composite construction techniques and materials engineering led to the incredibly lightweight structure which was key to the success of the Snowbird.
In 2011, together Robertson and Reichert became the youngest recipients of the Trans Canada McKee Trophy, the highest senior award offered by the Canadian Aeronautics and Space Institute.
Robertson admits it is likely that the copter program won’t have a commercial application — beyond the general use of light-weight materials and computer-aided optimization. But the team is also working on a related commercial product: a highly aerodynamic recombinant bicycle he says could be capable of going 70 MPH — a potential green commuting option down the road.
While while human-powered copters might not be flying overhead anytime soon, Robertson said he thought that many of the advances could be used for High Altitude, Long Endurance (HALE) craft, lightly powered (solar or hydrogen fuel-cell) platforms that could replace some satellites — at a much lower cost, and with the ability to be more easily taken out of service and upgraded or repaired.
While he says he can’t really point to one thing from his days walking the halls at Unionville High that propelled him in this direction, he said he felt the school gave him an excellent foundation.
“I was always interested in this sort of stuff, I come from a family of engineers,” he said. “But my time at Unionville was fun.” He noted that he especially enjoyed his AP Physics class — but he also found time for more down to earth activities, such as playing on the school’s rugby team.