Boeing's epic 'fly-off' could give us the future we deserve

The aerospace giant's GoFly Prize wants you to create a drone, flying motorcycle or other wild personal device that can carry a passenger 20 miles in a single trip.

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Eric Mack
4 min read

Boeing hopes the future of personal flight will be on display at an epic "fly-off" about two years from now. If all goes well, the technologies in the air that day could eventually give us a future where we fly from place to place a la "Blade Runner," which, coincidentally, is set in 2019.

Boeing is the main sponsor of the GoFly Prize, which was announced Tuesday at the SAE 2017 AeroTech Congress & Exhibition in Fort Worth, Texas. The competition uses a format similar to the XPrize to encourage the creation of a "personal flight device" that can carry a passenger for 20 miles (32 kilometers) without running out of fuel or battery power.

"Thanks to recent advances in materials, propulsion and autonomy, we believe the world is ready to make the next leap in flight innovation," Greg Hyslop, Boeing's chief technology officer, said in a video statement. "Will it be a jetpack, a personal drone, even a motorcycle in the sky?"  

The competition is open to just about any type of technology that can meet the 20-mile range requirement and is also "safe, quiet, ultra-compact and near-VTOL (vertical take-off and landing)," according to the official registration page

Individuals or teams from around the world can enter, with prizes awarded in three phases. Ten teams will win $20,000 (about £14,900, AU$25,395) for written specs, four teams will be awarded $50,000 (about £37,255, AU$63,490) for the best prototypes, and $1.6 million (£1.2 million, AU$2.03 million) will be awarded based on the results of the final fly-off in 2019.

Along the way, competitors will be given a hand through GoFly's "master/mentor program." Masters of different fields relevant to aerospace will give monthly talks on technical topics, and teams will also be paired with mentors to work one-on-one in developing their personal flight device.

"Our goal is to not only build this revolutionary technology but to also help the teams build revolutionary new companies," said Gwen Lighter, CEO of the GoFly Prize. "We're at the brink of a legitimate shift in the way we travel from one place to another."  

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Boeing and GoFly are far from the first to pursue the goal of personal flight. Countless designs have been pursued, and prototypes built and tested. Almost none have gained widespread commercial acceptance, except perhaps for helicopters that remain relatively big and noisy after all these years and not widely used for personal transportation.

Boeing itself even built and tested a remote-controlled version of a flying car in 2004 that was referred to as a "personal air vehicle" back then. But nothing from that effort ever made it to market.

There are working jetpacks in existence today, including at least one from Jetpack Aviation I've seen and touched firsthand. A few daredevils even used jetpacks to get up close to a commercial airliner in flight.

Watch this: Amateurs are flying real-life jetpacks now, nbd

But Lighter says that while existing personal flight devices are "wonderful proof of concepts," nothing in existence meets GoFly's requirements that the technology be safe, quiet and small. 

JetPack Aviation's turbine-powered jetpack was certainly anything but quiet. Other quieter devices tend to be larger, Lighter says. But she's also confident a convergence of emerging technologies makes now the prime time to pursue personal flight that's also practical. She cites autonomous systems being used in self-driving vehicles, improvements in batteries and lightweight materials, as well as rapid prototyping using 3D printing as key breakthroughs.

"All of these factors together make this the first time in human history where we can make people fly," Lighter said. 

Boeing isn't the only big corporate name interested in making flying a more personalized experience. Uber is working on a flying rideshare concept; Toyota hopes to have a flying car ready to light the Olympic torch at the 2020 games in Tokyo; and Google co-founder Larry Page is backing Kitty Hawk, just one of many small companies with a flying device design looking to get off the ground. 

In the big picture, the $2 million that GoFly Prize aims to award to flight innovators will amount to a little bit of seed money for a few new efforts to emerge in what's already becoming a crowded nascent personal-flight space. 

But the spectacle of that fly-off in 2019 could be a game changer.  

Lighter thinks the sight of all those devices cruising above the landscape for miles could inspire a whole new industry and a high-flying future.

"Today we look to the sky and say 'look at that plane fly,' but two years from now we'll look up and say 'look at that person fly.'"

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