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Meet the mad geniuses building personal flying machines

From billionaires to students, engineers around the world are racing to close the gap between humans and birds. A million-dollar prize adds incentive.

Since the mythical Icarus flew too close to the sun, personal flight–just you, minimal gear, and the open sky–has been both an inspiration and, well, a downer. But despite historical junk heaps of prototype jetpacks and mini flying saucers, technology may finally be catching up to ancient ambitions.

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Earlier this month, Larry Page-backed startup Kitty Hawk debuted a one-person electric craft called Flyer that can fly for around six miles on a charge. Meanwhile, Boeing, with an eye towards developing expertise and future business opportunities, is sponsoring a $2 million dollar contest called GoFly to spur the creation of a “personal flying device” that can go much farther, faster, and higher.

“There’s been a convergence of all of these breakthrough technologies that makes this the first moment in time where we have the ability to make people fly,” says Gwen Lighter, who dreamed up the GoFly prize, recruited Boeing to bankroll it, and now serves as CEO. Many of the advances come from the world of drones–high-efficiency motors, high-capacity batteries, and cheap navigation and stabilizing technologies that keep even newbies on course and out of danger.

Lighter also recruited eight cosponsors and 21 partner organizations to donate services and expertise. Over 600 teams from 95 countries entered the competition after it opened on September 26, 2017. And today, GoFly’s 97 judges are announcing what they see as the 10 most promising initial designs, awarding each team $20,000 to take its ideas from the drawing board to actual vehicle.

By the fall of 2019, these teams, and possibly other entrants, aim to meet GoFly’s requirements for a practical flying machine. Their prototypes have to achieve vertical takeoff and landing (called VTOL), eliminating the need for an airport runway. The machines must be able to fly at least 20 miles (without refueling or recharging), maintaining a speed of at least 30 knots (about 35 miles) per hour. The craft have to be small enough to fit within an 8.5-foot circle, and they have to be safe and manageable for anyone to operate–not just engineers or daredevils.

Contestants can try any scheme to meet those and other requirements, but about half the winning prototype designs look something like airborne motorcycles.

When hogs fly

“Many people are afraid of flying,” says Vladimir Spinko, head of Aeroxo, a team of GoFly contestants out of Latvia. “But bikers are not afraid of anything, so we decided to do a kind of prototype for bikers.” Their entry, the ERA Aviabike, looks roughly like a motorcycle with wings, a tail, and a bunch of box fans attached to it—two sets of four in front and another two sets in the back. They blow downward to lift Aviabike into the air, then tilt forward to push it along like an airplane.

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Aeroxo expects its first customers to be thrill seekers. [Image: courtesy of GoFly]
Such a morphing design is a popular VTOL strategy that takes advantage of a plane’s ability to fly faster, on much less power, than a pure helicopter could. Similar concepts are driving designs for multi-passenger flying taxis being developed by Uber and its aircraft-making partners such as Aurora Flight Sciences (which Boeing recently purchased), Bell, and Embraer.

Lithium-ion batteries power Aviabike, but GoFly entries don’t have to be electric. Vantage, the finalist design that looks most like a flying saucer, uses a hybrid system with a gas engine driving a generator, which in turn powers five electric rotors. Its creators, Team Leap from the U.K., made it a pure hovering craft, without wings. That’s not the most energy-efficient approach, but Vantage has power to burn.


Related: How Uber Plans To Get Flying Taxis Off The Ground


“Batteries have much less energy density than liquid fuel,” says Mike Hirschberg, executive director of the Vertical Flight Society, one of GoFly’s partner organizations. Depending on the technologies, fuel could pack on the order of 50 times more energy per unit of weight, he reckons.

Mamba, a team of graduate students from the University of Kansas, designed its eponymous craft to run on six gasoline engines–one for each rotor. Four rotors point downward to keep Mamba in the air, while two more on the tail rotate like those on the Aviabike to push up for takeoff, then forward for flight. Like Aviabike, Mamba also has a “crotch-rocket” design, as team leader Lauren Schumacher, a Ph.D. student, calls it. The rider lies on their stomach, holding what are essentially handlebars. “Progressing to a flying motorcycle is a natural extension,” she adds.

Gaming innovation

Beyond the crotch-rocket theme, the Aeroxo and Mamba teams are quite different. Aeroxo is a privately held drone-making company, originally based in Russia. The company had already decided to expand into personal flight vehicles. And Spinko, the COO, was already leading work on a design before they even learned about the GoFly Prize. Indeed there’s been a profusion of flying device concepts in the past decade or so–everything from a gargantuan riff on the James Bond jetpack to an attempt to recreate Iron Man’s flying suit.

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Even when mass-produced, Mamba could cost over $100,000. [Image: courtesy GoFly]
Team Mamba, in contrast, began spur of the moment when a bunch of students in a helicopter aerodynamics course heard about the contest. “We thought … How about instead of just doing a regular class project, let’s come together and actually build a whole aircraft?” says Schumacher, the only woman leading a winning team. (Organizers and participants all acknowledge the need to get more women involved in aeronautics. The Society of Women Engineers is one of GoFly’s partner organizations.)

GoFly builds on a long history of using competitions to spur innovation, says Hirschberg. The aeronautical engineer previously worked at the U.S. military’s research wing, DARPA, famous for “grand challenges” to kickstart futuristic technologies like autonomous vehicles. “That’s where this fits in,” he says of GoFly. “If you look at it based on conventional thinking and how people have done things for 100 years, on the face of it, it looks impossible.”

Hirschberg’s organization (until recently called the American Helicopter Society) ran the $250,000 Sikorsky Prize for the first human-powered flight. Established in 1980, the challenge was finally met in 2013 by a team of University of Toronto students and alumni called AeroVelo. They achieved the (modest) altitude, stability, and length of flight requirements with a giant peddle-powered quadcopter.

Google co-founder and aviation fanatic Larry Page recruited members of AeroVelo for his stealthy electric plane startup, Kitty Hawk. The company’s CEO, Sebastian Thrun, founded Google’s mad-scientist innovation division Google X and also led Stanford’s 2005 DARPA Grand Challenge-winning autonomous car team. Kitty Hawk is one of many recent examples of competitions propelling cash-strapped innovators into big-business opportunities.

GoFly participants, even winners who collect money, are free to take their innovations anywhere. They retain all intellectual property rights. “The GoFly Prize continues to align with our company’s mission of changing the world through aerospace innovation,” CTO Greg Hyslop said in an announcement about the winners. The company is investing heavily in new materials and propulsion technologies. Perhaps GoFly positions it to hire contest winners, or acquire their technologies, before competitors can.

Making it real

On June 6, Kitty Hawk debuted the final version of its single-person aircraft, the Flyer. (A prototype had emerged in April 2017.) Resembling a bobsled with struts holding 10 electric rotors, it weighs a modest 250 pounds. The price will be “in the range of an affordable electric car,” says Kitty Hawk’s VP of strategic and commercial development, Dave Clark. (At the other extreme, Kitty Hawk has also built a full-size air taxi called Cora.)

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That’s not bad for this sector. Schumacher reckons that Mamba would debut at about $1 million initially, making its way down to the $100,000 to $200,000 range in mass production.

Kitty Hawk has started accepting orders for the Flyer, but hasn’t said when they will arrive, or the exact price. Photo: courtesy of Kitty Hawk]

Most important, Kitty Hawk has already shown that a personal flying machine is possible–not just as a concept drawing or a janky prototype earning a brief, comical Wikipedia entry.

Still, Kitty Hawk’s Flyer couldn’t win the GoFly competition (and, with Page’s backing, probably doesn’t need the money). Flyer is only capable of 20-mph flights up to about 6 miles before the batteries die. Also, it’s only meant to fly over water, at a maximum altitude of 10 feet. Some of those limitations are to avoid stricter regulation. “Flyer operates in the ultralight aircraft category which means it operates over uncongested areas and does not require a pilot’s license,” says Clark, who calls the craft “an exciting first step.”

But Kitty Hawk could submit something new to GoFly’s second and third phases. With entries due in February 2019, Phase II will award $50,000 to each of four teams with the best demonstration of a functioning craft. Teams don’t have to be Phase I winners to compete in Phase II.

The same open opportunity applies to Phase III, the final fly-off in October 2019. The craft with the best mix of qualities–including speed, range, compact design, and just plain fun–will earn its team the million-dollar grand prize. Quarter-million dollar prizes will go to teams with the quietest and smallest entries, and $100,000 will be awarded for what judges consider the most “disruptive advancement of the state of the art.”

The later phases could see projects that have already progressed past the drawing board, such as the Martin Jetpack, an upright gas-powered craft that debuted in 2008 but has missed several deadlines to go on sale (at $250,000). The most sci-fi looking prospect for future GoFly rounds may be the Zapata Flyboard Air. The turbo-powered pedestal is as close as anything to the hoverboards from Back to the Future II. Both companies are participating in GoFly, says Lighter.

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From possible to practical

Success, for GoFly, means one or more prototypes that fulfill the demanding requirements for a real world flying machine. It doesn’t mean that such a machine will go on sale anytime soon.

But today’s inventors have many advantages over the garage tinkerers of the past. Billions of dollars are pouring into all the technologies they will need. Makers of drones, and now flying cars, are pushing to develop better and cheaper sensors, stabilizers, navigation, and sense and avoid systems. Along with carmakers, they are all pushing for better batteries and motors, too. Personal flight entrepreneurs will collect the technological windfall from other companies’ investments.

In addition, GoFly’s Lighter emphasizes that safety is a key requirement in judging. She says that whatever wins will be well on the way to meeting requirements of the FAA—and regulatory bodies in other countries—for mainstream operation. FAA staffers (in a non-official capacity) are even among GoFly’s expert advisors. “We speak with them, and they have been incredibly helpful in terms of guiding and preparing our innovators,” says Lighter.

But there could still be social hurdles, like noise. Prize criteria specify that loudness, from 50 feet away, not exceed 85 decibels. That’s about as loud as a diesel truck going by at the same distance and similar speed. Lauren Schumacher estimates that Mamba will put out only 67 dB, about the sound of a noisy dishwasher. Would that satisfy neighbors?

Cities are also struggling with congestion from ever-more motorized devices, including electric scooters and skateboards. Studies show that car services like Lyft and Uber may ultimately put more vehicles on the road. Commercial drone flights are also on the rise in urban areas, thanks to new business-friendly policies from the FAA. And flying cars are coming. Uber wants to start tests in 2020 and commercial service by 2023.

Sidewalk rage over errant scooters in San Francisco could look mild compared to air rage at skies full of ever more flying contraptions. The problem for Icarus, after all, wasn’t with the performance of his personal flying device, but with where he chose to fly it.

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However, the FAA regulates aircraft a lot more strictly than cities can regulate scooters, says Hirschberg. And it’s still not clear if the age of personal flight will even come to pass, at least at prices that make it more than a rare curiosity. “This GoFly prize intends to prove that it’s technologically possible,” he says. “And whether this is something that society wants is a whole other question.”

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About the author

Sean Captain is a Bay Area technology, science, and policy journalist. @seancaptain.

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