For those of us who grew up dreaming of jet packs, multi-rotor aircraft with electric motors and batteries are putting new life into the vision of personal flying machines. To spur innovation in this area, Boeing and others funded a $ 2 million “GoFly” competition for teams to develop prototypes that could carry a pilot or 200-pound mannequin aloft safely. Intrigued by the wide range of unique designs, I headed down to the GoFly Final Fly-Off at Moffett Field last weekend.
Like Self-Driving Cars, Personal Aircraft Are Harder Than They First Appear
From beginning to end the GoFly competition was about 2-1/2 years. Patterned after the original DARPA Challenge for autonomous vehicles, the timeline was split into phases, with increasingly difficult milestones and increasing development assistance funds accompanying each successive phase. However, much like the first DARPA Challenge, which I covered 15 years ago for our sister publication PC Magazine, no team actually completed the challenge.
To meet the challenge, teams had to come up with a vehicle that fit within the confines of an 8.5-foot sphere — for easy transportation. It also needed to have enough power to cruise at 30 knots (although one team said theirs would do over 100!). Noise had to be less than 87 A-weighted decibels at 50 feet (which is about the same as passing a diesel truck). Finally, it needed to have enough endurance to carry a person weighing up to 200 pounds safely for at last 20 minutes without refueling or recharging.
Phase I saw the top 10 teams who submitted plans awarded $ 20,000 each to continue work. Phase II saw 31 teams enter additional designs and show a prototype. Five winning teams were then awarded $ 50,000 to help develop a full-size aircraft.
Unfortunately, since no team met all the qualifications, no one was eligible for the $ 1 million Grand Prize. However, Team Tetra did win the Pratt & Whitney Disruptor Award of $ 100K for its design and technology. They didn’t get to fly during the finals, but you can see them showing off their winning craft in front of the crowd and Moffett Field’s historic Hangar 1 in the featured image for this article.
DragonAir Aviation Wants Flying to be Transportainment
The most sophisticated team in the event was DragonAir Aviation, from Panama City Beach, Florida. Their craft is about as close as you can get to a flying Segway. In fact, co-founder Jeff Elkins explained that it is easy to teach anyone to fly it who has used a hoverboard, Segway, or any other of the many body-controlled mobility devices. That’s because aside from the throttle trigger, and a joystick you twist to go left or right, all other navigation on their AirBoard 2.0 is done by leaning. This has another interesting benefit, he added: Since the pilot is essentially assisting the aircraft’s motors with their body weight, it becomes more efficient, and has a longer potential flight time when manned than when flown remotely with a mannequin on board.
Co-founder Mariah Cain is also the group’s main test pilot. She got hooked on flying with a Hydroflight watersport device, and the GoFly competition represented a way to improve on their existing AirBoard prototype. She sees it both as a way to show people that anyone can achieve what they set their mind to, and to provide the uniquely freeing experience of flying to an increasing number of people.
Aggies Innovate With Quiet Dual-Rotor Design
Since you’ll be positioned just a few feet from the motors and rotors of your future personal aircraft, and probably are hoping to enjoy the experience, the quieter it is the better. This is one area where Team Harmony (the team from Texas A&M) has specialized. They’ve come up with an innovative dual rotor design that flips the top rotor around so that its controls are above it. That allows them to control each rotor with a separate controller — even though they are co-axial. The result is a system that’s roughly half as loud as other designs.
While their full-scale prototype wasn’t ready for the Fly Off, they were able to fly their 1/3-scale model as part of the multi-team judging event.
A Star Wars Speedster Built Right Here on Earth
One vehicle that may not fly, but was by far the best-looking craft, is the Speedster-styled entry from (I kid you not) Phattony’s Rock & Roll Flying Motorcycle Circus.
The brainchild of aircraft-savant Tony Windisch, it has everything from a massive ducted-fan engine to a hood ornament he bought off Amazon. Tony has been building flying machines since he was 9, but this is clearly the most impressive.
Opener’s BlackFly May Be in Another League
One name conspicuous by its absence is heavily funded aviation startup Opener and its BlackFly ultra-light eVTOL. The company has an all-star team of engineers and backers, and their craft has already flown over 31,000 miles in testing. Designed as an ultra-light, it should avoid many of the pilot licensing regulations that heavier aircraft have to deal with.
Whether you think one of these efforts has the ultimate design or not, it is clear that sometime soon we’ll have the opportunity to pilot our own personal aircraft — at least if we’re willing to trust it.
[Image Credits: David Cardinal, Team image courtesy GoFly]