It might finally be time to fly.
That’s the hope of the people behind the GoFly Prize, a competition announced Tuesday that will give teams up to $2 million to develop the first-ever practical personal flying machine. With aerospace giant Boeing as the competition’s prime sponsor and other aerospace companies pitching in resources to assist teams, GoFly aims to do for jetpacks what SpaceX’s competitions are doing for the hyperloop.
“We are absolutely at a moment of achievable innovation, where we will make the impossible possible, where we will make people fly,” GoFly CEO Gwen Lighter tells Inverse.
The competition rules are simple: Teams will compete in three phases over two years to design and build a safe, affordable vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) machine that anyone can operate, regardless of age or ability. Registration for the first phase of the competition opened Tuesday and closes on April 18, 2018.
One doesn’t need to have 20 years of aerospace expertise under their belt to get involved, either: Lighter wants anyone who has ever had that dream of flight to consider signing up and getting involved.
“I would encourage [you] to join, because anyone anywhere can build,” Lighter says. “And our competition is open to those builders and dreamers and doers and makers and out-of-the-box thinkers, so we invite [you] to join us and build a new future, and frankly make history.”
Lighter prefers not to use the term “jetpack” — as she points out, the GoFly competition rules don’t require a specific fuel source, jet fuel or otherwise, nor does it need to have any particular form or design beyond being able to get individuals flying. But it’s hard to escape the kind of lofty dreams the word “jetpack” conjures, rivaling the flying car as a symbol of a 1960s-era vision of the future that went unrealized.
While there have been a handful of efforts over the years to make jetpacks or personal flight real, no one has yet worked out how to do this within Earth’s atmosphere — astronaut’s spacewalks remain the only practical use of jetpacks, and that’s stretching the definition of “practical” to its limits. As recently as 2014, the head of Google’s special projects laboratory said they had looked into jetpacks but concluded the technology just wasn’t feasible.
But Lighter says that’s changed in the last two years, as crucial advances in technology that have brought personal flight within reach. The development of more advanced autonomous systems in cars mean it’s now possible that onboard computers could stabilize and control flight, which a human would struggle to do.
“What we are seeing now and will continue to see over the next decade is these autonomy systems that will actually allow for humans to move away from the wheel and to have these cars operate safely and successfully,” she says. “So too will that technology be translated into flying devices.”
The work companies like Tesla have done on electric vehicle technology means affordable alternative power sources are a real possibility. The rise of drones has also been a crucial factor, as Lighter says control systems that didn’t even exist two years ago now make it possible for designs and configurations that would have previously been incapable of flight to take to the skies.
“And then you throw in the fact that there are now lightweight materials, 3D metal printing, and rapid prototyping, it opens up the world of innovation to engineers and makers and builders beyond the traditional confines of a large corporation,” she says. “Now is the first time that we actually have the ability to make people fly.”
Lighter says she can’t predict how many teams will sign up before the competition officially opens: She says it could be five or it could be 500, but she certainly hopes it will be closer to the latter. The first phase of the competition is the most open-ended, requiring only a concept paper with no actual prototype built. The 20 teams that win that first round will have access to experts and mentors from Boeing and other aerospace teams — while this competition is very much putting the onus on independent teams to innovate, they won’t have to go it entirely alone.
When asked why companies like Boeing is sponsoring this competition instead of putting its own considerable in-house resources behind developing the project, Lighter says the goal isn’t simply for one company to come up with one solution, but rather to create an entirely new form of transportation.
“You look at the birds in the world, there are so many different types of birds and different ways of flying — there’s no one right way, there’s no one right DNA,” she says. “Just as we say this flying machine should be built for anyone, anywhere, so too do we believe that our innovators can come from anywhere and be anyone. It opens up the world for innovation and new ideas.”
The competition recalls the race to build the first powered flying machine in the late 19th and early 20th century — which did indeed end with the Wright brothers taking flight for 12 glorious seconds in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina — but Lighter also looks to the birth of the automotive industry for inspiration.
“One of the goals of GoFly is at the end of the competition is not only to have this revolutionary new technology that makes the impossible possible, that makes people fly, but also to have a mini GM, a mini Chrysler, a mini Ford at the start of the automotive industry,” she says. “But in this case it would be all those mini companies and technologies at the start of the personal flying device industry.”
It’s a big dream, one that humans have yearned for since they first looked at birds flying overhead. It’s one Lighter herself says she has had her whole life. As a girl, she says she built crazy contraptions to fly and would hurl herself out of trees, hoping for that extra millisecond of lift. It never worked then, but maybe it can now.
“There is probably no dream that is more universally shared across the globe than that of soaring through the skies in personal flight,” she says. “And we are at a moment of achievable innovation where it is the first time in human history that something like these personal flying devices can be built.”