Flying Solo: GoFly Advances Single-Passenger Air Mobility Solutions
By Nicolas Zart
Vertiflite, May/June 2019
GoFly has awarded five teams $50,000 each toward their efforts to develop personal flying devices.
The $2M GoFly Prize competition has completed its second phase and has so far received more interest than ever imagined. The idea to fund safe and innovative designs for a personal flying machine was a longtime dream for Gwen Lighter and she worked for years to get it started, including getting help from the Vertical Flight Society and other experts (see “AHS Supports GoFly!,” Vertiflite, Nov/Dec 2017).
Lighter admits she was also the kind of kid who would make crazy contraptions and jump out of trees to see if they could fly. After working on the idea with interested parties (she presented the competition at the VFS Second Annual Transformative Vertical Flight Workshop in August 2015), she finally found the grand sponsor in The Boeing Company — as well as the support of 21 international aerospace and engineering organizations — to make the GoFly Prize a reality. Phase I was announced on Sept. 26, 2017.
In the end, this two-year, three-phase, $2M competition sponsored by Boeing has attracted more than 3,500 innovators and 824 teams from 103 countries across the globe. From this, 31 teams across 16 countries submitted entries for Phase II and the GoFly Prize announced the winners on March 26.
The aim of GoFly is to push the safety envelope for an urban air mobility (UAM) flying device by rethinking vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) aircraft, which must be designed to carry a single rider 20 miles (32 km) without refueling or recharging at 30 kt (56 km/h) or faster. GoFly chose to limit the aircraft design with a maximum dimension of no more than 8.5 ft (2.6 m) with a noise level less than 85 dBA, measured 50 ft (15 m) away.
Phase I emphasized the design and technical capabilities, while Phase II and III are the actual building phases. The development of and better access to technologies for stability and control, propulsion, lightweight materials, energy storage, and rapid prototyping are making this a closer reality than previously thought.
GoFly announced its 10 Phase I award recipients on June 14, 2018, with each winning team receiving $20,000 to support their efforts and encourage others to invest (see “GoFly Enters Phase II,” Vertiflite, July/August 2018). Four of the Phase I awardees and one new entrant were selected to receive $50,000 awards to provide funding and encouragement toward a final fly-off scheduled for February 2020, though anyone who meets the requirements is allowed to compete, whether they were prior winners or not.
But if the goal is to foster the development of a safe, quiet, compact, near-VTOL, personal flying device capable of moving a single rider for 20 miles, then the innovative design approaches for these personal flying machines is now well demonstrated with the GoFly challenge. The remaining projects show distinct approaches, each tackling the requirements differently and showing where the eVTOL industry is leaning, no pun intended.
The five selected designs run the gamut, from standing on the DragonAir Airboard 2.0 to motorcycle-riding positions such as Aeroxo’s ERA Aviabike and sitting inside the Silverwing S1. Untapped creativity meets aviation expertise to offer what was once a distant dream. In some ways, this is reminiscent of a similar enthusiasm unleashed in the car industry over a decade ago. Within a few years after Tesla entered the market with its mainstream electric vehicle (EV), almost every carmaker had an EV to offer. The approaches went from pragmatic to downright futuristic concepts. The same thing is happening in the aerospace industry at almost every level affecting the development of electric VTOL for UAM and so many other applications.
Interestingly, of the five Phase II winners, the two university teams — Texas A&M University and Delft University of Technology — have been flying subscale demonstrators that they plan to scale up for the Phase III competitions. The other three teams appear to be flying full-scale designs; the challenge there is for the aircraft to meet the performance requirements while scaling them down to meet the size constraints.
Aeroxo: ERA Aviabike
Aeroxo LV, from Latvia and Russia, proposed its ERA Aviabike — a lithium battery-powered VTOL hoverbike that borrows heavily on the single-rider riding position, with a saddle for the pilot to fly it. The ERA Aviabike flying bike uses 16 ducted, tilting, distributed propellers, with four groups of four-ducted props: two on each side, fore and aft. Additional lifting surfaces presumably work to provide lift for the extended range.
Essentially, the ERA Aviabike is a single-seat, tiltwing aircraft with VTOL capabilities. The rider is positioned on the motorcycle-style seat. That position means the rider is always shoulder height away from the propellers, as well as far above the ground where they can throw up debris, which seems to be a safe approach.
Vladimir Spinko is Aeroxo’s team captain, with multi-year experience in technology, venture capital and unmanned aircraft systems (UAS).
DragonAir: Airboard 2.0
The late-comer DragonAir and its Airboard 2.0 is a Florida-based team developing an electric passenger drone: “The Airboard 2.0 is a multicopter for human flight.” The Airboard 2.0 carries a standing passenger inside a capsule tucking away eight sets of push-pull propellers. The prototype has demonstrated controlled low-altitude hovering and turning in action.
Mariah Cain is the project manager. She is a trained hydroflight athlete and “has a passion for all types of flight.” She is not only the experimental pilot for this new device, but also the technician.
Silverwing Personal Flight: S1
Next, Team Silverwing showed its promising S1. The student-led project from the Netherlands’ Delft University of Technology also positions the pilot in a motorcycle-like manner in front of two ducted rotors. However, the pilot is protected in a cockpit. Many of the students previously worked on Delft University’s Hyperloop project.
The S1 is a tailsitter that makes a 90-degree transition from vertical takeoff to horizontal cruise flight. The main features of the device are two electric, ducted fans, a passenger shell for safety, and the landing gear and battery pack integrated into the wing. The team’s vision for the S1 is: “The passenger experiences exhilarating speed and freedom sitting in a racing position as the device autonomously transitions between take-off, horizontal flight and landing.”
Texas A&M Harmony: Aria
Texas A&M Harmony’s Aria has a touch of that Jetsons design. The high technology readiness level (TRL) compact rotorcraft is “designed to minimize noise and maximize efficiency, safety, reliability and flight experience.” The Aria houses its driver within a capsule above its power propulsion below connected to two counter-rotating rotors. Everything comes to rest on two skis.
The project is led by Dr. Moble Benedict, an assistant professor of aerospace engineering at Texas A&M (and the 2016 VFS Bagnoud Award Winner). The team is comprised of students at the university, as well as researchers at NASA and the University of Maryland. The Harmony team has flown a subscale Aria and its in-flight testing recording looked stable.
Trek Aerospace: FlyKart2
Last but not least, Trek Aerospace showed its electric FlyKart2, which features a single-seat, open cockpit in the midst of 10 louvered propellers and no winged flight mode. This VTOL was designed to be inexpensive to build, own and operate, to the joy of potential future individuals who might buy it.
Trek Aerospace, a California-based team, has been innovating aircraft design since 1996. The Aria finds its root when the group won a DARPA funding to develop a personal flying device called the SoloTrek. Robert Bulaga is the president and chief technical officer of Trek Aerospace. Bulaga is an expert in ducted-propeller technology and currently works with a number of companies on integrating this technology into their platforms. He has participated in the design and development of numerous aircraft over the past 30 years and has developed CFD code for designing shrouded propeller assemblies in conjunction with Stanford University.
GoFly’s Bold Future Aerial Mobility for All
Each of the finalist teams will continue development and compete — along with any others who meet the requirements — in the Phase III series of fly-off challenges planned for February 2020. The winner, to be decided by a panel of more than 90 industry judges, will receive the $1M grand prize. There are $250,000 prizes for the smallest and the quietest compliant entrants. A $100,000 prize was added by Pratt & Whitney for a “disruptive advancement of the state of the art.”
In the end, speed is calculated during a 6 nm (11 km) loop with the distance divided by the time to complete six laps around two pylons spaced 0.5 nm (926 m) apart. The six laps must be flown in less than 12 minutes to meet the 30 kt (55 km/h) speed threshold (6 nm / 0.2 hours = 30 kt).
GoFly says it is “reimagining flight, transportation, and exploration” with safety and reliability in mind for everyone. And it insists on that “everyone.” Personal flying devices capable of being flown safely by anyone, anywhere is key to the challenge. It is a device for all — young and older, city-dweller or suburbanites and beyond, whether you know how to fly or not. GoFly says it is rethinking how humans get around in the 21st century with a new generation of personal flying devices, a perfect recipe for the possibilities of a future UAM landscape.
GoFly says all teams will keep their intellectual property and are only required to grant limited media rights to GoFly so that it can publicize and promote the competition and the teams. The Grand Prize Teams will be evaluated on performance, including speed and endurance, the ability to perform near vertical takeoff and landing capacity, quietness, compactness, and lastly, experience open-air flight.
Teams can fly manned or unmanned and can be operated remotely or in an autonomous manner. GoFly also stresses that it is an open group with an agnostic propulsion position, as long as the device is user-friendly — ideally an extension of the user’s body. Overall, it needs to provide the thrill of flight.
GoFly says it recognizes late bloomers and welcomes anyone at any time to the competition. To do that, all team members will have to register through their website, www.GoFlyPrize.com. In addition, GoFly has provided teams and the public with access to “masters” of aerospace and business in global webinars — gurus from NASA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), industry and academia, including luminaries who actually wrote the textbooks — as a means of supporting the projects. And in case that wasn’t enough, one-on-one help is available through the competition’s mentor program, where teams work directly with mentors in their specific areas of need. Registered teams can also take advantage of other benefits, such as complimentary VFS membership and access to the Society’s online resources.
What’s Next for GoFly?
Phase III registration deadline and flight readiness review will be announced in September 2019. A flight readiness review will be supported by a flight readiness report, which must include flight logs “showing at least 10% of safe prior flight minimums and a final safety report.” The final fly-off is set for February 2020.
Overall, the GoFly challenge highlights the creativity and far-reaching solutions that eVTOL has to offer. A new design approach to building and flying light, single-rider personal flying devices is what GoFly is promoting. New distributed-propulsion systems and new levels of battery capabilities — with prices dropping constantly — means that electric propulsion is becoming more capable, affordable and can take on previously unexplored shapes and sizes.
But perhaps most importantly, with more than 3,500 innovators from all six inhabited continents engaged in (or at least following) the competition, the GoFly Prize is encouraging people everywhere with its vision. Whether or not the GoFly Prize results in “personal VTOL for all,” it has already inspired thousands with the excitement of advancing vertical flight and how technology advances can be applied to change the world.
About the Author
Nicolas Zart has written on electric cars, autonomous cars, electric aircraft and other green mobility vehicles since 2007 for various outlets, including CleanTechnica.com.