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SUHPA effort to mark 50th anniversary of world’s first human-powered flight

Published: 13 July 2011
Dr Forrester wind tunnel testing
Dr Forrester wind tunnel testing

2011 marks the 50th anniversary of the world’s first human-powered flight, when a group of University of Southampton students designed and built SUMPAC (Southampton University Man Powered Aircraft).

To commemorate this achievement, a group of University of Southampton students are constructing their own human-powered aircraft (SUHPA) to be entered into the prestigious £100,000 Kremer International Sporting Aircraft Competition, which promotes the development of human-powered aircraft (HPA).

A HPA is powered solely from human energy during take-off, cruise and landing. The first successful take-off and landing of SUMPAC was on 9 November 1961 covering a distance of over 650 metres. To win the Kremer prize, SUHPA must twice navigate a 1500 metre triangular course at five metres above ground level at a speed of not less than 17 mph.

The 2011 team, consisting of 10 fourth-year engineering undergraduates, are currently designing the aircraft using much more advanced technology than their predecessors used 50 years ago, such as the main structure of the aircraft being made almost entirely from carbon fibre reinforced polymer (CFRP).

Dr Alex Forrester, Senior Lecturer in the University’s Computational Engineering and Design Research Group and project co-ordinator, says: “In order to achieve what is required to compete in and win the Kremer competition, it is essential to exploit all of the advanced engineering technology that we have available. Every aspect of the aircraft's design did this whether it involved minimising weight, maximising efficiency or minimising drag.”

The SUHPA design also incorporates a number of key differences from other HPAs, which the students hope will help them win the Kremer prize competition for the UK. A major innovation is an autopilot unit, developed by a Southampton graduate, to aid control of the HPA through take-off, the triangular course and landing. This has many advantages over conventional design, since the pilot will be able to concentrate on putting maximum effort into cycling rather than maintaining straight and level flight.

Dr Forrester adds: “Although the aim of the Kremer competition is to promote the production of an aeroplane suited to athletic competition, the potential applications of the aircraft are much wider. In addition to contributing to develop a novel competitive sport, the SUHPA could be used for recreational flying, similar to hang gliders and paragliders.

“Perhaps the application with the largest business potential of all involves harnessing the power of the sun. By simply adding an electric motor powered by photovoltaic solar cells to the original aircraft it could remain airborne indefinitely, opening a wide range of possibilities. The fact that the SUHPA is originally designed to use an autopilot gives the possibility of an easy conversion to an unmanned air vehicle (UAV). The applications could include remote sensing, surveillance, telecommunications, meteorology, disaster management and earth science among others.”

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