With less than a month remaining, remaining Phase III contenders in the Boeing-backed GoFly competition to develop new personal air vehicles are preparing for the Final Fly Off event on February 29, at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California. The winner will take home a $1 million prize.
Up to now, the GoFly competition has involved 854 teams from 103 countries developing a variety of largely vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) aircraft. Ten Phase I winners were announced in 2018, each taking a $20,000 prize. Another five winning teams were awarded $50,000 each in March 2019 at the culmination of Phase II.
Due to the rolling nature of the competition, teams can compete in Phase III without having competed in a previous phase and vice-versa. With one month remaining, dozens of hopefuls have winnowed down to an expected five teams that will fly a manned prototype in the Fly Off, with another dozen or so present for other prizes or to show off their technology.
“We do not speak directly about each of the teams’ technologies, because that’s their information to give, but we do see flying platforms and flying motorcycles and human-carrying drones,” said GoFly CEO Gwen Lighter. “It’s very exciting to see the variety in types of devices and propulsion systems as well … some use wings and some do not. We think that visually the Final Fly Off it will be quite spectacular to see.”
One of those flying motorcycle-looking devices will be the Silverwing S1, which is a canard-wing design in which the rider flanked by two ducted rotors. Team Silverwing, which is based at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, was among the winners of both Phases I and II. The team started with six students, but since that Phase I victory, it has grown to include about 30 engineers from the school, according to original member James Murdza.
Murdza said Silverwing’s goal is the creation of “a personal vehicle that anyone can step into [that can] land in the area the size of a parking space.” With the small footprint and the ability to operate autonomously, he said it would be useful for emergency response situations.
The S1 is expected to have a 31-mile range with a cruise speed of 75 mph. A 200-pound payload will add to the aircraft’s maximum takeoff weight, which is expected to fall between 440 and 463 pounds., according to team member Akash Pandey.
Silverwing plans to be at the Final Fly Off flying in the $100,000 disruptor prize showcase, but not with a human pilot onboard, according to Go Fly.
Another veteran of GoFly’s Phases I and II is California-based Trek Aerospace and with only two permanent members it is the smallest team in the competition. Trek is using GoFly to showcase its technology, according to team captain Rob Bulaga. The company has a history of both consulting with aerospace companies such as Boeing and GE as well as creating aircraft kits itself.
Bulaga said Trek hasn’t decided yet whether it will look to market the vehicle created for GoFly. Trek team members see themselves as engineers, so the ideal setup would be to sell the license to a manufacturing company.
So far, Trek has only had to make some adjustments to existing technology and write up design reports, which is nothing new, Bulaga said. “It’s actually embarrassing how little effort we’ve had to put into it,” he said. “Our biggest challenge is that we’re an existing company, so we have other customers.”
That is changing with the time crunch to flight test before the Fly Off, though. Go Fly said Trek will be present, but in what capacity is “still in flux.”
Trek’s FlyKart 2 relies on batteries and 12 ducted fans for power and propulsion, allowing it to fly for 40 minutes at its 52-mph cruise speed. The propulsion system provides 530 pounds of lift for an aircraft with maximum takeoff weight of 450 pounds.
“We call it a flying go-kart,” Bulaga said. “We knew a flying car would be too difficult to build to make it road-legal and all, so it’s a go-kart.”
Team Aeroxo will be bringing its Era Aviabike from Latvia to the Fly Off. Its dozen-strong team had been building small unmanned air vehicles when it realized that a larger, manned aircraft might be feasible, according to chief operating officer Vladimir Spinko.
“It’s a flying motorbike tiltrotor,” said Spinko. “It has the ability to take off and land vertically. It’s much easier to use for urban and different kinds of missions, [because] there’s no need for airfields.”
The Aviabike’s cruise speed is around 80 mph. Spinko said he hopes for around 30 minutes of flight time, and a maximum range of 43 miles. This would make the aircraft suitable for short hops of up to around 19 miles around urban centers.
“The primary user is somebody who lives inside a city,” he said. “The guy should have a pilots’ license… somebody who doesn’t want to spend time in traffic jams. And somebody who can afford it. We anticipate an initial price of the Aviabike will be somewhere around $100,000 to $120,000.” Eventually, Aeroxo plans to lower the price to around $50,000 with the benefits of scaled manufacturing.
The all-electric vehicle has a wingspan of just under seven feet and a maximum takeoff weight of 772 pounds. “Potential customers told us there’s no use to building hybrid vehicles due to the high noise level of hybrids; they can’t be used in [some] cities,” Spinko said.
“Few people believed we could build this,” Spinko said, though that is changing with the validation received from of GoFly judges from Boeing and Bell. “Many people follow GoFly and are starting to understand our concept.”
The competition does enforce certain requirements to help guide participants, but intentionally leaves the parameters as open as possible to foster creativity. GoFly connects industry experts with participating teams to act as advisors. For instance, rethinking the thrust mechanism for the Aviabike according some advice from such a mentor helped Aeroxo achieve 7 or 8 percent more thrust, according to Spinko.
Once the competition wraps up at the end of February, Lighter said GoFly would continue to support the teams. Work is currently being done on a “GoFly 2.0,” she said, but no additional information is yet available.
GoFly organizers believe the competition has already been successful in stimulating innovation in the industry while helping startups who have something to offer but lack either the resources or brand awareness to be as successful. Involvement is intended to give teams a way to help others while helping themselves.
“They see how this can help the world,” Lighter said. “It can be a greener, more sustainable method of mobility. It can open up new avenues for point-to-point in a world where we have rising urbanization. Seventy percent of people will be living in cities in next 50 years and infrastructure is crumbling.”