In 1980 American Helicopter Society International initiated the Igor I Sikorsky Human-Powered Helicopter competition. Their challenge was to build a machine capable of flying for one minute within a 10-meter square using only the power of its crew.

In May 2012 AeroVelo launched a Kickstarter project to fund their attempt. They imagined a human-powered helicopter built around the frame of a bicycle that would be wider and longer than a Boeing 737. They reached their funding goal in June.

In June 2013 AeroVelo successfully flew their Atlas human-powered helicopter for 64 seconds. They met all of the competition’s requirements and were awarded the US$250,000 prize. AHS International Executive Director Mike Hirschberg attributed AeroVelo’s success to their approach:

It took AeroVelo’s fresh ideas, daring engineering approach and relentless pursuit of innovation … to succeed in achieving what many in vertical flight considered impossible.

In only 12 months AeroVelo were able to build a machine with capability that had eluded others for 33 years. They did this by making failure a critical part of their process.

During development AeroVelo tested their materials to learn how they individually deform and fail then continuously tested how their structures would fail in turn. This process provided them with feedback faster than they could have obtained by only testing fully-developed prototypes. By failing fast they were able to learn from feedback, respond to change and ultimately build a machine that was as only heavy as it needed to be.

AeroVelo summarised this approach with the maxim:

Continuously challenge your innovations in order to fail as early as possible.

I believe embracing failure exemplifies agile software development’s value of responding to change. The faster we fail the faster we create opportunities to learn.