Behold, the Human-Powered Helicopter

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This is kind of like the Flintstones’ foot-powered car, but it’s also totally different because 1) it’s a helicopter and 2) it’s actually real.

A team of engineers at the University of Maryland has come close to winning the Sikorsky Prize, a $250,000 grant awarded to any group that can build a human-powered helicopter — with a few stipulations, of course. To earn the prize, first introduced by the American Helicopter Society (AHS) in 1980, the machine must be able to hover for a full minute and reach a height of 3 meters within a 10-meter by 10-meter box. All powered by nothing more than human muscles.

(PHOTOS: Flying Machines: The 2011 Paris Air Show)

Sounds tough, right? That’s probably why in the past three decades no one has been able to claim the prize. But the University of Maryland team has been working toward this goal for the past four years, and they’ve come close with their 80-pound contraption. Built from carbon fiber tubes, styrofoam and plenty of superglue, the machine measures 100 feet across. The pilot sits and pedals with his or her hands and feet — kind of like a bicycle — to unspool strings that propel the helicopter’s rotors. It’s fully functional — and, with a few more tweaks, could eventually meet the specifications to take home the Sikorsky Prize.

For now, though, the team still faces a few major challenges. First, their helicopter has yet to hit the 3 meter (approximately 10 foot) height requirement. Graduate student Elizabeth Weiner told NPR that the team doesn’t think meeting that goal is very likely, although they’ve already hit eight feet. The major obstacle is keeping the vehicle within the 10-meter by 10-meter box. Their vehicle lacks a steering mechanism and tends to drift.

After four years, countless hours, frustrating crashes, dead ends, and, NewsFeed imagines, some likely superglue-related snafus, one might wonder: what keeps these young engineers working so tirelessly to win the seemingly unobtainable Sikorsky prize?

“It’s an engineering challenge,” Weiner told to NPR. “Nobody’s ever done it before.”

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