Teach Engineering: Rubberband Helicopters

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video Teach Engineering: Rubberband Helicopters
The rubberband-powered helicopter is a favorite of my students because of the ease of construction and the exciting end product. 

Students will investigate the ideas of lift, drag, and stored energy as they each build their own helicopter. Furthermore, students will learn how the aforementioned ideas work together to create a successful flying machine. Promoting the process of learning physics through direct experience and experimentation is the ultimate goal of this project.

Materials and Tools:

6" hook nose propellers
Craft sticks
Contest rubberband
Colored construction paper (or other rigid yet light material)
Masking tape

The cost per helicopter is around $0.65 when 50+ propellers are purchased for the bulk discount.

The Lesson Plan:
Total time from start of lesson to end of cleanup is approximately 40-60 minutes, depending on age level and how the project is conducted.

Show students how the helicopter works right away to quickly get their attention. Explain how the helicopter works and the function of each part as you demonstrate it.

How It Works:
1. Energy is stored in the sport rubber by winding the propeller.
2. When flown, the sport rubber rapidly releases its energy by unwinding, which turns both the propeller blade and the paper cutout.
3. The paper cutout pushes against the surrounding air, which creates horizontal air resistance, or drag. This makes it harder for the cutout to spin. Because the cutout does not spin as easily, more energy from the sport rubber is released into the propeller, which is much easier to turn. In this way, the paper acts like the rear rotor of a real helicopter
4. As the propeller spins rapidly, it begins to create lift by pushing air downward. With enough energy, the helicopter will fly in whatever direction it is pointing.

Step by step, construct a helicopter in front of the students. When you're finished, show students the proper technique to flying the helicopter. Tell your students that flying the helicopter takes practice. Hand out materials and allow students to begin building.

Take the students outside (or to a gymnasium) to fly their helicopters after everyone has finished. Bring scissors, extra paper, tape and sport rubber with you. Remind the students how to fly the helicopter upon arrival.

Adapt this lesson to fit your class. Middle school students will find more challenge in figuring out how to build a helicopter without guided practice. Perhaps you prefer to build first, then follow up with a Q+A to understand the theory. Do what works for you.

Encourage the students to experiment, be willing to fail in the pursuit of the perfection. When everything is done you're students will have a first-hand understanding of how helicopters work and a fun new toy!

Tips and Troubleshooting:

- Try it at home at least three times before bringing it to class!
- The number one reason helicopters fail to fly is due to simply not winding the rubberband enough.
- The second biggest reason is caused by letting go of the whole helicopter at once. When I show students how to fly the helicopter, I say, "Let go - let go," as I release the top and bottom. Tell your students that verbalizing "Let go - let go" in one's head or out loud can help coordinate one's hands.
- You may want to tie the sport rubber for younger students during your prep time.
- Try making templates of bird wings or a helicopter silhouette. For one Halloween, I made cardboard templates of bats. For added flair, the project was renamed "Baticopters."
- In my experience, a long rectangle approximately 6" x 1.5" made out of cardstock is the most efficient shape and material.
- Cutouts which span less than 3" typically do not perform well.
- With a little practice, students can throw the helicopter as it is being released for additional height
- Spinning propellers can get caught in long hair.
- Stay far away from buildings, trees and fences!

Here's to you!

Thanks for taking a look at my Instructable. I would love to hear about your experiences with this project, as well as your comments and criticisms. Enjoy teaching!
Too Cool! In a neighborhood clinic near me they have a counseling meeting for parents.I needed an A&D counseling credit for school, and found myself in this group meeting one day. As this meeting The kids they bring generally have nothing to do for the hour, as the focus of the group is on the adult's parenting skills. When I realized what meeting I was in,I figured on Boring,Boring,and more Boring. I couldn't have been farther from the truth. To try and settle down a fidgety and uncomfortable little girl of 3 or 4, (they were all about that age), I made her a 'shuttle' type paper airplane- (the kind that kinda floats slowly, instead of zooming straight into the ground). She loved it! the other kids immediately took notice,and quit squirming and whining - now I was the one having fun.
I would like to use the helicopter design,and find a way to deploy a parachute when the band's tension is gone. Just a tiny 'chute, more for the looks than anything. 2 projects in one! I'll post whatever I come up with. Race Ya to It!
i'm in Vietnam and i CAN'T order the Nose Hook Propeller so PLEASE HELP ME MAKE THE Nose Hook Propeller
Crocatiel2 years ago
I love this project, but where could you buy cheap propellers? Could you make a propeller out of paper or something? Thanks!
WYE_Lance (author)  Crocatiel1 year ago
The propellers from are pretty cheap, only about $0.50 each
shibyfonya1 year ago
Cool activity!

One question though, what site were the blades purchased from?
WYE_Lance (author)  shibyfonya1 year ago
I provided a link under Materials and Tools, but here it is again:

6" Hook nose propellers 

The site name is

Hope this helps - let me know if you decide to make a heli :)
RSV262 years ago
but wont it spin like a helicopter with out the rear rotor???
WYE_Lance (author)  RSV262 years ago
Yes, both the propeller and propeller shaft + foam cutout spin in opposing directions. The whole point of having a foam cutout is to create lateral drag, which reduces the spinning of the propeller shaft so more energy from the wound rubberband goes toward the propeller. It also makes the copter look cool :)
RSV26 WYE_Lance2 years ago
so its a airplan that fli's up. nice
B3rker2 years ago
Awesome and simple project, tomorrow I make one!
ITChE2 years ago
Awesome! I teach a similar class called Makers! which is a mix of Art & Engineering. We will definitely be trying this. Thanks for sharing. Are you on twitter? I sometimes share ideas or projects on there.
WYE_Lance (author)  ITChE2 years ago
Thanks! Unfortunately I'm not on Twitter, but I do have a Facebook page for my program
seamster2 years ago
Thank you for sharing this!

I also teach a similar class, and I'll definitely be adding this to my list of activities. (You might be interested in a couple of my instructables if you haven't seen them yet... Paper Stomp Rockets and Paper Stomp Jets have proven to be favorites in my classes, lending to great hands-on lessons in physics.)

These helicopters are wonderful. If you got more great ideas like this one... please share!
WYE_Lance (author)  seamster2 years ago
Thanks for the kind words. I'll most definitely be sharing more! I also conduct a paper rocket project similar to yours, though the launcher is powered by compressed air from a bicycle pump and released with a valve.
We've got a lot of fat kids where I live, so I like to make them work a little harder to make their rockets fly!
Oh dear. Solving childhood obesity one rocket at a time.
This is great! Lots of good explanation. :D

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