Last year, a $2 million global competition called the Go Fly Prize was introduced with the goal of producing “an easy-to-use, personal flying device.” These devices needed to be safe, quiet, ultra compact, and capable of carrying a single person 20 miles or more without refueling or recharging. Think of it like the first X-Prize competition, which effectively spurred the private space industry, or the DARPA Grand Challenge, which gave birth to the current self-driving car craze.
Today, the Phase I winners and their designs were revealed, and wow, these things look pretty bizarre. With names like “HummingBuzz” and “Blue Sparrow,” the winning designs are a bonkers-looking assortment of hoverbikes, passenger drones, and a few that defy comparison. What is true is that they all went beyond the concept of a “jetpack” to create something pretty original.
Each winner was selected from a pool of almost 3,000 entrants across 95 countries, a spokesperson said. The 10 winning teams come from Latvia, the Netherlands, Japan, the United Kingdom, Taiwan, and the United States. For Phase II of the competition, each winning team will need to build a fully functional version of their personal flying devices, and ideally not harm anyone in the process.
“The GoFly Prize is unique in that we’ve been able to unite top engineers from around the world around one common goal—making people fly,” Gwen Lighter, CEO and co-founder of the contest, said in an email.
The question is: would anyone who prefers not to live out their days as an amputee ride one of these things? The finalists aren’t lacking in aerospace expertise. The design submitted by Aeroxo LV, the team from Latvia, is called the ERA Aviabike. It’s a tilt rotor aerial vehicle type that combines the vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) capabilities of a helicopter with the range and speed of a fixed-wing aircraft. And it certainly looks like something you’d see whizzing through the futuristic landscape of Tomorrowland.
Another team, Mamba, described their eponymous vehicle as “a hexcopter emphasizing safety, certifiability, and performance. Shrouded rotors and a tilting empennage are incorporated.” In appearance, it looks like it could do serious damage to your lawn.
Jetpacks aren’t a completely fanciful idea, and daredevils have been demonstrating amazing aeronautical feats in the US and across the world. But the idea that jetpacks have commercial applications or that personal flying devices will solve our transportation and infrastructure challenges is completely ludicrous.
Fortunately, none of these designs seem to have much in common with a jetpack. Rather, they seem to be more in line with some of the people-moving drones that are beginning to crop up in the far corners of the world of aviation hobbyists. Vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) aircraft, especially ones that are powered by electric motors, are becoming increasingly popular, with major companies like Boeing, Airbus, and Uber throwing big money at building their own “flying cars.”
In that context, the GoFly Prize is intended to inspire the next generation of aerospace engineers. “The GoFly Prize is going for a seemingly impossible challenge: to have something that is small enough [for] individual flying, while having long endurance and low noise,“ Mike Hirschberg, executive director of the Vertical Flight Society, told me. “Based on conventional wisdom, any one of these would be very difficult. Together, it doesn’t seem possible. And that’s why it’s so exciting.”