07/11/2013 10:31 EDT | Updated 09/10/2013 05:12 EDT

AeroVelo, University Of Toronto Team, Win Human Powered Helicopter Flight Competition

TORONTO - When Todd Reichert settles into the pilot seat of the helicopter he helped build, there are no fancy electronic switches to flip, there's no fuel tank to fill and certainly no computer to configure before take off.

What allows the 31-year-old to defy gravity is sheer human power, delivered to the craft's four rotors through the bicycle pedals he steadily pumps throughout his flight.

It's that fragile machine, built by Reichert's Canadian team, which has now won a long-coveted international prize that lay unclaimed for years.

The AHS Igor I. Sikorsky Human Powered Helicopter Competition was established in 1980 for the first successful controlled flight of a human powered helicopter that could reach a height of three metres while hovering for at least one minute in a 10-square-meter area.

The competition isn't held over a few days or weeks, instead, the prize goes to the first to achieve all the award's requirements. Innovative engineers have been chasing the title for more than three decades but few had even come close to meeting all the parameters.

This year, however, AeroVelo — a small team of University of Toronto alumni, students and volunteers — went head to head with a team from the University of Maryland, each group racing against the other to achieve the perfect flight.

The American competitors had been working on their design longer and had a much larger team, but after a final tense flight piloted by Reichert last month, the Canadian team thought they might have performed well enough to clinch the win.

That was confirmed Thursday as AeroVelo was officially announced as the winner of the long-sought-after award, which comes with US$250,000 in prize money.

"This isn't something that you're going to commute to work in any time soon, but it's an exercise in really pushing the limits on what's physically possible, and what you can do with lightweight materials and really creative design," Reichert told The Canadian Press.

"Winning this competition really is a catalyst to keep doing the things we love. Our goal is to take on projects that really inspire people to follow big dreams."

The winning hand-built helicopter — nicknamed Atlas — is huge, measuring nearly 47 metres across, but also surprisingly light for its size, at just 54 kilograms.

The light-weight nature of the frame, made largely of carbon fibre tubes that connect four rotors to a central bike, is a necessity, as the craft relies entirely on the strength of the pilot to fly.

"As you spin your legs, you're spinning the rotors," explains Reichert. "It's very much an exercise in mental and physical control, at the same time as an all-out physical effort."

Actually hovering at three metres off the ground is an "incredible feeing," he says.

"It's like you're biking along the street and someone came and just picked up your bike, and now you're floating. At the same time you don't really have the time to appreciate that, because of everything that's going on. Upon landing is when it all sinks in."

It took more than a year for the Canadian team to finally take its winning flight.

The project began in January 2012, involved months of painstakingly slow, incremental changes to get the right design and included two heart-breaking crashes that destroyed much of the craft each time.

The driving force behind overcoming all their setbacks was the team's belief in their ability to challenge conventional design.

"I hope that this inspires not only our fellow Canadians, but also global citizens to do more with less," says Cameron Robertson, the team's 26-year-old chief structural engineer.

"We hope to use the helicopter as a platform to forward the message of what is possible and how we can attack the challenges that face society as a whole in terms of sustainably applying technology."

For the Canadian team, building their helicopter was about more than winning one prize.

Reichert and Robertson, who both studied engineering at the University of Toronto, have set up their own company also named AeroVelo, and already have their eye on developing other human powered vehicles.

"We hope that in the future human power can provide a viable alternative or at least a supplement to fossil fuel vehicles," says Robertson.

"If a human powered helicopter is possible, there's nothing people should look at as impossible."

That sort of thinking is exactly what the body that conducted the helicopter competition was aiming for.

"(The human powered helicopter) was never intended to be a practical flying machine...but from our perspective it's like climbing Mount Everest, to prove that it could be done," says Mike Hirschberg, executive director of the American Helicopter Society International.

"It's to provide future generations with hands-on galvanizing experiences."

And while a human powered helicopter might not be the most practical vehicle at present, the designs and engineering approaches used in building the winning craft can certainly be put to good use in the future.

"We inspire, by doing this, that next generation of people that will go out into the industry and create new and wonderful machines," says Matthew Tarascio, chief engineer at Sikorsky Innovations, which contributed the quarter of a million dollar prize money to the competition.

"I think there's a fascination with what humans can do and pushing the limits. This is really the competition that allowed humans to show that they could hover. That's Da Vinci's dream... and AeroVelo, they did it all right, and they put it all together."