In the early 1480s, Leonardo da Vinci drew up plans for what we now recognize as a helicopter, to be powered by four men turning cranks. Today, Neal Saiki is trying to revive the idea of human-powered vertical flight, and he’s a lot closer to taking off than da Vinci ever was. Saiki is the man behind “Upturn,” the helicopter with an 85 foot diameter that weighs a mere 95 pounds.
Saiki is no newbie in the field. The Santa Cruz engineer led the team that built the first human-powered helicopter ever to take flight; in 1989, the da Vinci IV hovered for eight seconds, a few inches above the ground. More than two decades later, Saiki wants to go further: hover for a minute, and rise to nine feet. If he and his team can do it, they’ll win the Sikorsky Prize, the $250,000 award for a human-powered helicopter.
The Upturn has taken flight, but it isn’t within striking distance of the Sikorsky requirements just yet. First the team needs to install ultra lightweight parts to drop the total weight of the machine. It also needs a large indoor facility that can host test flights, and a professional cyclist to power the thing. Here’s the catch: he or she must weigh no more than 140 pounds.