AeroVelo’s fifth-floor McCaul Street space looks more like a bike repair shop than a lab. Bikes lean against the wall in the hallway, a makeshift elliptical sits in the corner of one room, tools and loose parts litter the ground. But there are hints that there’s more going on: whiteboards covered in expansive checklists and charts, team members focused on laptops, and a handful of sleek, strange bikes that seem to be stolen straight from the set of a sci-fi film.
The bikes—various white, sunflower seed-shaped vessels—are among the world’s fastest. Lightweight and aerodynamic, the human-powered vehicles can reach speeds just shy of 133.78 kilometres per hour, the current world record. And they’re the precursors to Eta, what the AeroVelo team—a dozen or so twentysomething university students and graduates—hopes will be the world’s fastest human-powered bicycle.
This week, the University of Toronto-based team will kick off Eta’s final fabrication. Backed by student scholarships, corporate sponsors, a Kickstarter campaign, and local shops, AeroVelo will spend the next month creating, assembling, and fine-tuning the bike before it’s ready for testing at Downsview Park and speed tracks in the United States. Then, in September, it will compete for the world record at the World Human-Powered Speed Challenge in Battle Mountain, Nevada.
“It’s a unique learning opportunity for students,” Robertson says. “Human power is excellent as a design constraint. You can optimize your human and get 10 or 20 percent more power, but fundamentally, you can’t drop a different engine in. If the challenge is really hard, you have to focus your efforts to engineer better, think creatively, and be more efficient.”
AeroVelo is used to thinking outside the box. The team dates back to 2006, when co-founders Cameron Robertson and Todd Reichert began creating the world’s first human-powered ornithopter (an aircraft that flies by flapping its wings), which flew in 2011. Then, in the following year, the two graduates assembled a student team that created the first human-powered helicopter to stay afloat for more than a minute within a 10-square-metre area—something many considered impossible.
“Our past projects haven’t resulted in practical vehicles,” Robertson says. “The bikes are much closer to an actual commercial application… It effectively would be very possible to take [one of our bikes], go down to Lakeshore right now, and commute to Oakville at 100 kilometres per hour.”
While he points to obstacles such as safety (the bikes are worse than a Smart car when it comes to collisions) and infrastructure (what lanes would they use?), he remains optimistic that Eta will inspire new, greener approaches to transportation planning in place of the societally accepted, fossil fuel-burning default.
“Part of the reason we like human power is that a human is only the equivalent of a third or half a horsepower engine, which is like an electric motor the size of your fist,” he explains. “If you can design something that does incredible things like this on human power, it’s by default energy-efficient and easy to adapt to an environmentally conscious transportation solution.”
AeroVelo isn’t stopping there, though. The team already has ambitions to conquer another daunting challenge. Following the speed challenge this fall, they’ll begin work on “the marathon aircraft,” a human-powered vessel capable of traveling 42 kilometres in one hour. “The challenge hasn’t been seriously attacked and certainly not claimed,” Robertson says, adding that experts have said it might be plausible only “if the atmosphere was half as dense or gravity were 30 percent less or you were on Mars.” In other words, most people consider it impossible.
Well, it wouldn’t be the first time the minds at AeroVelo proved them wrong.