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This Little Computer Can Make You an Expert Paraglider

If one little mistake can send you plummeting to your death, how do you even begin to learn?

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Acrobatic paragliding is ridiculous. Watch that video. Crazy, right? That move is called an “Infinite Tumble.” The paraglider is spinning head over heels, subjected to up to eight Gs—“almost three times more than space shuttle astronauts experienced at takeoff,” says Wired.

Just think of all the things that could possibly go wrong:

It’s enough to break your neck if you aren’t braced for it. A mistimed tug or release on a control line can catapult the pilot into his own wing, “giftwrapping” him and sending him into a freefall, rendering him unable to deploy the emergency parachute. Landing in a lake that way will break bones, at the least. Landing on the ground will kill you.

So how could you possibly ever learn such a death-defying maneuver? Baby steps, for sure: getting grips on the fundamentals, slowly working your way up. But still, your first time is always going to be risky. In Wired, Andy Pag tells the tale of Calin Popa, an acrobatic paraglider who, struggling to perfect some of the sport’s moves on his own, designed and built a make-shift computer that can track the wearer’s movements and give needed queues at exactly the right time.

The device, called VTR, for Voodoo Trimbulind Robot, provides precise instructions on when to pull and release the control lines that will send the wing spinning, looping, stalling and flipping. That makes it an exceptionally powerful tool for learning the exceptionally difficult sport of acrobatic paragliding.

With a range of sensors, from an accelerometer to a gyroscope to a barometer and GPS system, the little computer can keep track of where the paraglider is, as well as how she’s moving and how fast. Using data recorded from professional paragliders, Popa has worked out the timing and technique of achieving the sport’s acrobatic moves.

The final version, the VTR1003, will be about the size and weight of a soda can and initially will be available only to acrobatic paragliding instructors.

“You need an instructor to explain the principles of each move first, but in the air this thing teaches you the timing, which is the hardest part to learn. It can even retrain you if you’ve picked up bad habits,” Popa says. He estimates that learning with his robot on board is five times faster and five times safer than the DIY approach pilots currently use.

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About Colin Schultz
Colin Schultz

Colin Schultz is a freelance science writer and editor based in Toronto, Canada. He blogs for Smart News and contributes to the American Geophysical Union. He has a B.Sc. in physical science and philosophy, and a M.A. in journalism.

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