We live in a world where formerly unattainable futuristic touchstones like “flying cars” and autonomous vehicles are being treated with straight-faced sincerity by some of the biggest companies in world. So I guess it was only a matter of time before we had to start taking jetpacks seriously, too.
A new two-year, $2 million global competition called the Go Fly Prize was introduced today at an aerospace industry conference in Texas with the goal of producing “an easy-to-use, personal flying device.” The organizers of the contest, which is being sponsored by aerospace giant Boeing, say they want to incentivize teams of students, engineers, and inventors to develop a vertical take-off and landing device (or one that is nearly VTOL) that is safe, quiet, ultra-compact, and capable of carrying a single person 20 miles or more without refueling or recharging. In other words, a jetpack that can be “used by anyone, anywhere,” Go Fly’s organizers say.
Jetpacks aren’t a completely fanciful idea, with daredevils 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.
But don’t tell Gwen Lighter, a self-described “serial entrepreneur” who has been shopping her idea of a global competition for over two years to various stakeholders before landing Boeing as a “grand sponsor.” With the backing of the second largest aerospace manufacturer in the world, Lighter is now able to take her brainchild mainstream, officially unveiling the Go Fly Prize at the SAE 2017 AeroTech Congress and Exhibition in Fort Worth, Texas.
“What we are really talking about is making people fly,” Lighter told me last week. “There is no dream that is more universally shared than that of soaring through the skies. It unites us all.”
Lighter said that a number of innovations in the world of transportation have made the idea of a personal flying device less ridiculous than it seems. She cited autonomous vehicles, improved battery technology, 3D printing, and lightweight drones as some of the advances that could converge to make jetpacks a reality. “Now is the first moment in history where something like these personal flying devices can be built,” she said.
According to Go Fly, the prize money will be awarded in three phases: Phase I will include ten $20,000 prizes awarded based on written technical specifications; Phase II will include four $50,000 prizes awarded to teams with the best prototypes and revised specs; and Phase III will award $1 million to the Grand Prize Winner at the Final Fly-Off in the fall of 2019. The final Fly-Off will be judged by a team of experts from Boeing and other leading organizations.
The image of ordinary people blasting around like James Bond in Thunderball (or The Rocketeer for you ‘90s kids) is equal parts thrilling and terrifying. Asked how jetpacks could be anything other than a technological curiosity, Lighter noted that more people are moving to densely populated urban centers at a time when our transportation infrastructure is buckling under the strain. It’s an argument frequently echoed by supporters of other outlandish transportation ideas like flying cars and hyperloops: all options need to be on the table when it comes to moving people around in the future.
But when you analyze the statements of the Go Fly Prize’s sponsors and supporters, the overarching message is about inspiring the future generation of aerospace engineers, rather than strapping a miniature helicopter to grandma’s back and watching her get dizzy. Boeing’s chief technology officer Greg Hyslop said the competition “aligns with our company’s goals of inspiring people across the globe and changing the world through aerospace innovation.”
Mike Hirschberg, executive director of the American Helicopter Society and an adviser to Go Fly, told me that the goal of the contest was not to build and sell jetpacks like accessories, but rather inspire students and would-be engineers to get involved in VTOL.
“I don’t think Boeing wants to put into production small personal flying devices,” Hirschberg told me. “There’s no market for it. It’s not the product itself, it’s the inspiration to students. Really it’s about inspiring the next generation of aerospace engineers, scientists, and technicians so they don’t all go to Google.”
To be sure, there are jetpacks that exist outside the pages of Popular Science. A pair of daredevil Frenchmen, Yves Rossy and Vince Reffet, have been chasing 747s and buzzing above the Burj Khalifa and the Grand Canyon in their jetpacks for several years now. Dubai, a city obsessed with all things glossy and futuristic, has an order out for 20 jetpacks for its firefighters. A company called Jetpack Aviation flew its prototype beyond the stern, disapproving stare of Lady Liberty in 2015. And Google founder Larry Page is aiming to have a consumer model of his weird, lake-skimming Kitty Hawk Flyer available by the end of this year.
Any of these types of flying devices would qualify for entry in the Go Fly Prize, Lighter said. Jetpack, flying car, and hoverbikes will all be considered if submitted. And if the contest’s parameters for a winning entry sound vague, it’s by design. “So right now, the technology that we are asking people to build doesn’t exist,” she said. “We are about catalyzing the creation of the new technology.”