Vertical Flight Society


Vertical Flight Society Student Design Challenge

A mission for student teams to design a VTOL vehicle based on Leonardo’s Aerial Screw concept
$12,500 Prize Pool


For the complete overview and guidelines, download the 2019-2020 VFS Student Design Competition request for proposal here. 

2019 marks the 500th anniversary of the death of Leonardo Da Vinci, the famous Renaissance inventor who conceived many outstanding and innovating ideas far ahead of his time. Among them was the sketch of the Aerial Screw, recognized by VFS and others as the first human-carrying vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) machine ever designed — in this case, some 400 years before a helicopter carried a person aloft (see the links at

The famous drawing of the Aerial Screw, together with a few lines of text describing the working principle, clearly envisioned the first technical concept for a VTOL vehicle and is considered the first heavier-than-air VTOL aircraft design in history.

Related image

Although this concept, for a number of reasons, is clearly far from being a practical solution of an actual VTOL capable machine, Leonardo Helicopters wishes to highlight that little attention has been posed from a technical standpoint to the idea of the Italian inventor. The actual pros and cons of the Aerial Screw are often quoted but have not been analyzed extensively, nor has a possible working application been studied, leaving a gap in the technical understanding of the significance of the invention.


The 37th Annual Student Design Competition will have an historical mark, proposing a critical review of the Leonardo Aerial Screw idea to understand how the concept can be considered the foundation of vertical flight. 

The goal of this year’s VFS Student Design Competition is to design a VTOL vehicle based on Leonardo’s Aerial Screw concept, studying and demonstrating the consistency of its physics and potential feasibility


Specific Objectives 

The competitors shall design a vehicle relying for lift and thrust from one or more “Aerial Screws,” i.e. single-blade rotor with solidity equal or greater than one with a continuous surface, making use of any possible airborne power-plant/energy storage (buoyancy can be considered), capable of: 

  • Carrying 1 pilot or a passenger of a total of at least 60 kg (basically minimum human load of 60 kg)
  • Take-off vertically, holding the position for at least 5 seconds (within 10 m radius from take-off spot, no wind)
  • Flying for at least one minute, covering at least 20 m of distance at an altitude above the ground of at least 1 meter, untethered.
  • Land vertically, after holding the position for 5 seconds (within 10 m radius from landing spot, no wind)

Task 1: Vehicle Conceptual Design (ALL Participants)

The teams shall select a configuration based on the Aerial Screw as described above and provide: 

  • A concept definition and description, including significant configuration trade off analysis
  • Preliminary study of all required systems including aerodynamics, structures, powerplant, rotor, controls, etc., based on documented existing proven technologies and/or existing equipment
  • Preliminary capability and performance definition
  • Validation of the design and/or the aircraft elements, especially as far as the Aerial Screw lifting device(s), by analysis, simulation or scaled models
  • A poster of the project (A2 format, digital edition) with brief description of the project and the team, a 3-view and a 3D rendering as well as selected significant details; the best physical posters will be exhibited at the Leonardo Helicopters headquarters

The Conceptual design will be evaluated by means of the following metric: 

  • Demonstration of the compliance to the above minimum requirements
  • Distance exceeding the above requirements
  • Aesthetics and similarity to the drawings of Leonardo Da Vinci

Task 2: Detailed Design (Graduate Teams ONLY)

For the graduate category, a deeper technological investigation of key elements of the AerialScrew concept is required. This will entail an assessment of structural stress level and static and/or fatigue substantiation of the critical elements.

 The objective is to demonstrate, on a few selected cases, that the developed conceptual design could actually be tested on a real demonstrator aircraft. 

Areas to be assessed include the following: 

  • Assessment of weights and applicable rotor and airframe loads
  • Assessment of structural integrity
  • Assessment of reasonable manoeuvrability and workload
  • Control system concept and control laws definition (in case of stability and control assistance or automation is considered)
  • Assessment of crew accommodation/accessibility suitable for demonstrator-level operation
  • Assessment of demonstrator-level manufacturability

The levels of details of any of the above is left to the team discretion and will be evaluated accordingly. Also, a preliminary assessment of any of the above is considered sufficient. 

The detailed design work will be evaluated with the similar metric used for the Conceptual Design.

Optional Bonus Task: Flight Simulation Model sponsored by Advanced Rotorcraft Technology, Inc. (ART) 

ART will form a judging committee consisting of experts from ART and VFS (and other vertical flight industry and academic institutions at their discretion) and will provide two prizes for the best FlightLab flight simulation of the concept: one prize each of $1,000 for the undergraduate and graduate teams.

Entries will be judged using the following criteria: 

  • Data: completeness and detail level of the proposed model
  • Modeling: adequacy of the approach and correctness of the model
  • Analysis: effectiveness of the analyses used in the design activities and decisions
  • Pilot-in-the loop: model capability to run in real time with human input
  • Communication: description and discussion of assumptions, approach, techniques, results in a formal report as well as in a presentation.

ART will provide specific details for obtaining the necessary software licenses to teams AFTER receipt of the Letter of Intent to Participate and ONLY if a team has indicated their plan to participate in the bonus task.

Training (electronic tutorials or similar) is also provided in an equal way to all participating teams; in order to foster a fair competition, no direct help or support can be provided to teams.



For the complete guidelines, download the 2019-2020 VFS Student Design Competition request for proposal here. 


  • Submit Letter of Intent to Participate - No Later Than (NLT) February 3, 2020
  • Submit Requests for Information/Clarification - Continuously, but NLT February 28, 2020
  • VFS Issues Responses to Questions - NLT March 28, 2020
  • Teams submit Final Submittal (Final Proposal and Executive Summary) - NLT May 31, 2020
  • SDC Committee and sponsor notifies VFS of results - Early August 2020
  • VFS announces winners - Mid to Late August 2020
  •  Winning teams present at VFS Forum 77 - May 11-13, 2021

Who May Participate 

Undergraduate and graduate students from any school (university or college) may participate in this competition, with the exception of countries or persons prohibited by the United States government. A student may be full-time or part-time; their education level will be considered in the classification of their team (see 1.1.3). 

Team Size and Number of Teams 

The formation of project teams is encouraged and must follow these rules: 

  • ALL teams, regardless of size, MUST name at least one (1) faculty advisor in order to compete (the same faculty advisor is allowed for different teams)
  • the maximum number of students on a single-university team is ten (10)
  • the minimum team size is one (1), an individual
  • schools may form more than one team, and each team may submit a proposal, but each team is limited to a maximum of ten students
  • a student may be a member of one team only

We look favorably upon the development of collaborative, multi-university teams for the added experience gained in education and project management. The maximum number of students for a multi-university team is twelve (12), distributed in any manner over the multi-university team.

The members of a team must be named in the The LOI is drafted by the team captain and emailed to the Vertical Flight Society contact by the date specified.  The Letter of Intent must include: 

  • Name of the university or universities forming the team
  • Name of the team
  • Printed names of the members of the team from all the universities in the team
  • Email addresses and education level (undergraduate or graduate) of each team member, including the team captain and faculty advisor(s)
  • Affiliation of each student in the case of a multi-university team
  • Printed names and affiliations of the team captain and faculty advisor(s)


Leonardo Helicopters is very pleased to sponsor the VFS Student Design Competition this year and will provide the funds for the awards and travel stipends, as described below (all amounts in US Dollars). 

Submittals are judged in three (3) categories. 

Undergraduate category

  • 1 st place - $2,000
  • 2 nd place - $1,200
  • 3 rd place - $750

Graduate category: 

  • 1 st place - $2,500
  • 2 nd place - $1,800
  • 3 rd place - $1,000

Best New Entrant:

  • Undergraduate - $500
  • Graduate - $750

Optional Bonus Task ($2,000):

  • $1,000 (awarded to one undergraduate team completing the Advanced Rotorcraft Technology (ART) Flight Model Simulation task, judged independent from the design portion)
  • $1,000 (awarded to one graduate team completing the ART Flight Model Simulation task, judged independent from the design portion)

For evaluation criteria; proposal requirements; proposal format, length, and medium; language and units used in proposal; and all other inquiries, download the 2019-2020 request for proposal here.