Boeing is hosting a competition to build the world’s first personal flying machine

The last time we tried this, it didn’t really take off.
The last time we tried this, it didn’t really take off.
Image: AP Photo/Rusty Kennedy
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Strap in.

Boeing is sponsoring the GoFly competition, which aims to create the first personal flying device with vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) capabilities. The competition’s organizers, a mix of aviation engineers and enthusiasts, have spent the last two years working with aviation groups and authorities, and Boeing, to devise the rules and structure for the competition in such a way that they might spur the sort of innovation they’re after. Think of it like the first X-Prize competition, which effectively spurred the private space industry, or the DARPA Grand Challenge, the Pentagon-organized competition that has inspired many of the self-driving-car startups currently trying to turn autonomous-vehicle travel into a reality. GoFly wants to do the same thing for the jetpacks we’ve been dreaming of for about as long as we’ve had jets.

“We are at the brink of a legitimate shift in the transportation world,” Gwen Lighter, CEO and founder of GoFly, tells Quartz. “In the most basic sense, GoFly is all about making people fly.”

The $2 million competition is broken down into several phases. From today, groups can register to take part, and have until Apr. 18, 2018, to submit written proposal with technical specifications for their ideas. Anyone can put together a proposal, regardless of their background, to submit to the competition. And GoFly will then select the 10 best of those submissions to receive a $20,000 prize. The second round entails building a working demonstration of VTOL technology by Feb. 6, 2018. The four best will be awarded $50,000. Lastly, there will be a fly-off to take place in September 2019 for the $1 million grand prize. Teams will be judged on how quiet, safe, and how small their devices are. Ideally, GoFly wants these to be machines that anyone of any age can safely operate. (Beyond the grand prize, GoFly will also award $250,000 prizes to the teams with the smallest and quietest entrants.)

This isn’t a knockout competition: Any team will be free to join in at any stage that they think they can compete in, and Lighter expects a range of teams from universities to private companies to compete along the way.

Teams will have access to mentors with aviation experience (including some from the US Federal Aviation Administration) in all the areas they’ll need to master to win—VTOL, propulsion, noise dampening, and the like. “There is a large group of people who are interested in being mentors,” Lighter adds.

Lighter argues that a confluence of technological breakthroughs in the last few years mean a personal flying device, whatever shape it may end up taking, is more attainable than ever before. The capacity of electric batteries; the autonomy and global-positioning systems of self-driving cars; the sense-and-avoid and flight-control systems of drones; metal 3D printing—all of these are relatively affordable and available to anyone looking to build the transportation system of tomorrow.

The competition is not imposing any constraints on what sort of propulsion system the teams can use, Lighter points out. That means the personal flying device might look like something out of an Iron Man movie with actual jets, or perhaps it could end up more like a giant drone you can sit on, or maybe it’ll be a modified DeLorean.

But there’s also no guarantee that anyone will be able to answer GoFly’s call over the next two years, nor that any contestants will disrupt the way we all get around anytime soon. The original DARPA self-driving car competition was in 2004, and 13 years later, we’re still in the earliest of stages of developing viable services. Even if the winners of GoFly can turn us all into real-life Rocketeers, there’s still the massive hurdle of setting up a regulatory framework that would allow anyone to strap a flying machine to themselves and just take off. In the US, states license residents to drive cars, but the question of whether autonomous vehicles and drones should be regulated at a federal or state level remains unresolved.

Hopefully by the time there’s a winner, we’ll have an answer. “The aviation industry was built on this premise of solving problems that didn’t previously exist,” Lighter says.