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Since 1984, the Vertical Flight Society (formerly the American Helicopter Society) has held its annual student design competition to challenge future rotorcraft designers with projects that stretch their imagination and their skills; many seem outlandish or improbable at first but have often been ahead of their time.
The VFS competition is sponsored (in rotation) by the five major helicopter manufacturers (Airbus, Bell, Boeing, Leonardo and Sikorsky) and government agencies like NASA and the U.S. Army.
Last year’s Airbus-sponsored competition was for an “Extreme Altitude Mountain Rescue Vehicle,” which challenged students to design a rotorcraft to perform emergency medical services on the highest mountain peaks in the world.
Since this year’s competition falls on the 500th anniversary of Leonardo da Vinci’s death, sponsor Leonardo Helicopters has conceived a tough, out-of-the-box challenge that applies the technologies of today to the innovations of the past for potential applications tomorrow.
Da Vinci was a Renaissance artist and inventor who conceived many innovating ideas that were far ahead of his time.
One was the famous late 15th Century drawing of the aerial screw, which together with a few lines of text describing the working principle, depicted the first technical concept for a vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) vehicle and is considered the first heavier-than-air VTOL aircraft design in history.
Titled “Leonardo’s Aerial Screw: 500 Years Later,” the VFS competition challenges student teams to design a VTOL vehicle based on da Vinci’s aerial screw concept, studying and demonstrating the physics behind his design and its potential feasibility.
The actual pros and cons of the aerial screw are often quoted but have not been analyzed extensively — nor has a possible working application been studied — which leaves a wide gap in the technical understanding of da Vinci’s invention.
Teams are required to design a vehicle that relies on one or more “aerial screws” (i.e. single-blade rotors with a continuous surface that wraps around itself like an actual screw) for vertical lift.
The design must be capable of lifting one 132-pound (60-kilogram) person with a vertical takeoff and landing, and fly for at least one minute at a height of three feet (one meter) or more above the ground to a distance of at least 65 feet (20 meters).
The students must conduct a conceptual study of all required systems, including aerodynamics, structures, powerplant, rotor, controls, etc., based on existing technologies and equipment. Although the point is not to build an aircraft, the preliminary capability and performance of the VTOL aircraft must be defined and validated.
Graduate students also have to conduct a deeper technological investigation of key elements of the aerial screw concept, including an assessment of structural stress levels. The objective is to demonstrate that the developed conceptual design could actually be tested on a real demonstrator aircraft.
Leonardo is providing more than $12,000 in prizes. In addition, Advanced Rotorcraft Technology, Inc. (ART) of Sunnyvale, California, is sponsoring a flight simulation optional bonus task with an additional $1,000 each in prize money available for a winning graduate and undergraduate team.
Letters of Intent from participating teams are due by Feb. 3, 2020, and final submissions are due no later than May 31, 2020.
Luca Medici, head of aircraft system integration at Leonardo Helicopters said that many achievements in vertical flight are the product of strong collaboration between industry, academia and the research world, and that student competitions help prepare young engineers to innovate.
“Students, stimulated and properly guided, are the seeds of the growth we are looking for,” said Medici, adding that the competition will help students develop their analytical, problem solving and management skills while working on a complex vertical flight aircraft design prior to graduation.
VFS executive director Mike Hirschberg said that many previous participants in the competition now occupy senior engineering positions in academia, government and industry (including the emerging electric VTOL industry), and the student designs have often foreshadowed future VTOL concepts.
Hirschberg said that few of today’s engineers were trained to design drones or electric VTOL aircraft or extra-terrestrial rotorcraft (like NASA’s Mars Helicopter). The annual VFS competition will require them to apply their knowledge, skills and ingenuity to solve new challenges, adding that “this year’s competition provides a new twist that students have never seen before. We’re excited to see what they come up with!”