A huge, spindly, spiderlike contraption arches over the AstroTurf of an indoor soccer stadium near Toronto, its X-shaped trellis of carbon-fiber tubing so diaphanous that it’s hard to make out. The end of each truss arm terminates in a pair of shiny, fragile rotor blades made of foam, balsa, and Mylar. From the center of this precarious assemblage, 130 feet across, hangs a skein of slender cords that supports a dangling, wheelless bicycle frame. If this all seems rickety, it becomes doubly so when wiry 31-year-old Todd Reichert clambers up and settles onto the bike seat: The double arch above him sags and sways like a hammock as it accepts his weight.
Reichert shouts: “Ready—go!” Four student volunteers who had been holding the rotor blades steady run toward the center of the craft as Reichert starts pedaling, and the blades begin to spin in great slow arcs. His face is a mask of concentration, his mouth set in a grimace as his legs pump faster and faster. The only sound is the periodic squeak of a bearing. The students clustered around him seem too rapt to breathe. The craft is so fragile it looks like it could collapse at any moment. And that’s by design: The 120-pound flying machine, dubbed Atlas, contains just enough structure to lift Reichert’s 165 pounds and scarcely an ounce more. As Reichert explains: “There’s a thousand joints in here, and if a single one fails, it all falls apart.” Read the rest of this entry »