Twenty-one teams from 10 countries were invited to participate in the GoFly Prize Final Fly Off competition on Feb. 28–29, many to showcase their “personal flyers” and several to compete for a $1M Grand Prize. The event was held at Moffett Federal Airfield at NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California, in the heart of the Silicon Valley.
The GoFly Prize is the brainchild of serial entrepreneur and attorney Gwen Lighter who launched the competition to encourage the development of safe, quiet, ultra-compact, near- VTOL personal flying devices capable of carrying a single person 20 miles so everyone can experience the joy of flight.
“What we are talking about is the stuff of your childhood dream when you wanted to fly,” Lighter said in an early interview, “but defying gravity is hard.”
The dream of personal flight had indeed been with Lighter since she was a kid, and eventually she was able to start working to make that dream a reality. In January 2015, she began holding “wire brushing sessions” with experts in aviation, business, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and rotorcraft to refine her ideas.
VFS staff and members threw their support behind GoFly, while Lighter knocked on a lot of doors to find a sponsor for the competition over the next year. She finally got a positive response from Dr. John Tracy, the chief technology officer (CTO) and senior vice president of engineering, operations and technology of the Boeing Company, and similar enthusiasm from his successor, Dr. Greg Hyslop.
On Sept. 26, 2017, the GoFly Prize was officially launched as a two-year, multi-phase, international incentive competition with $2M in prizes provided by Boeing — and later $100,000 provided by Pratt & Whitney — “to help fuel the imagination of the next generation of inventors, engineers, tinkerers and doers.” (See “Ready. Set. GoFly!,” Vertiflite, Nov/Dec 2017.) Lighter and Hyslop made the announcement at the SAE AeroTech conference, orchestrated by future VFS staff member, Jim Sherman.
Dan Newman, past VFS technical director and chief engineer advanced vertical lift for The Boeing Company, reached out to implore members of VFS (then known as AHS International), to get involved: “For over 75 years, the AHS International has facilitated engagement between vertical flight theorists and practitioners, sharing and discussing and debating how to provide better and more affordable devices, finally arbitrating in hardware. The membership constitutes the most broad and deep repository of how (and how not) to develop and deliver vertical flight capability. This activity is an opportunity to share, to teach and to learn from a whole new cadre of innovators.”
Within 50 days of the launch, 20 leading aviation and technology organizations (first and foremost VFS) partnered with GoFly to help spread the word and thousands signed up on the website, www.GoFlyPrize.com.
Since then, GoFly has created an international community of 3,800 innovators, engineers and builders in more than 103 countries with tens of thousands of followers.
Competitions have always played an important role in driving advances in aviation. The Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum notes that as early as 1909 “exhibitions, races, long-distance flights, and other forms of aerial competition were becoming a regular attraction across Europe and in the United States.”
The Orteig Prize for the first non-stop flight between New York City and Paris was won by American Charles Lindbergh in 1927, which spearheaded the development of commercial air transport.
Seven decades later, the Orteig Prize inspired Dr. Peter H. Diamandis to create the XPRIZE Foundation in 1994. The $10 million Ansari XPRIZE for private spaceflight — won 10 years later by Mojave Aerospace Ventures SpaceShipOne — ushered in a new era of commercial space exploration and applications.
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) also held its first Grand Challenge in 2004 in the Mojave Desert to spearhead development of the first fully autonomous ground vehicles capable of completing a 150-mile (240-km) off-road course. The best team could complete less than 5% of the course, but five teams crossed the finish line the next year.
“These challenges helped to create a mindset and research community that a decade later would render fleets of autonomous cars and other ground vehicles a near certainty for the first quarter of the 21st century,” states the DARPA website.
The Vertical Flight Society’s own Igor I. Sikorsky Human Powered Helicopter Competition similarly endured many years of trials and tribulations. The competition was launched in 1980, a third of a century before the AeroVelo team from Toronto, Ontario, successfully completed all of the challenging requirements on a single flight (www.vtol.org/hph). AeroVelo was inspired by the $250,000 prize purse provided by Sikorsky Aircraft — as well as the impressive progress made by the University of Maryland’s Gamera team in 2012. The GoFly Prize built on the success of these competitions to drive the development of personal vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) aircraft.
“GoFly is incredibly difficult because of its combination of requirements,” said Lighter. “We all know that you can make something that is large and quiet… and something that is small and loud. But to make something that’s small and quiet and then add the endurance requirements… well, that’s a Herculean task.”
The idea of a lightweight and compact VTOL device that is an extension of the human body is probably as old as antiquity. However, previous concepts (e.g. Hiller Flying Platform, Bell Rocket Belt and modern jetpacks) had very short endurance and the jets were extremely loud.
Aeronautical engineer Sky Sartorius became GoFly’s technical lead in March 2015. His task was to translate Lighter’s ideas and industry feedback into a well-crafted rules package.
“I really like and enjoy well-crafted requirements. They are solution agnostic and don’t self-contradict … and truly capture the intent of the requirement,” said Sartorius. “You try to make it possible by very clearly illustrating where the summit of the mountain is, but do not dictate which route people have to take to get there.”
GoFly had to ensure that “nothing that currently exists should be able to win a prize” and that “teams shouldn’t be able to ignore a rule and still be viable” or find “incentives for unsafe design and operation.” It was also important to understand the rules from a competitor’s perspective and make the scoring easy enough for each team do their own measurements “with very little money and very little effort” to determine if they would be eligible for a prize, said Sartorius.
Once Boeing committed to sponsor the GoFly Prize, VFS members and volunteers from other organizations helped Lighter’s team design and manage a challenging competition that provided tremendous support for the teams. “From day one, we have tried to enable our teams for success,” said Lighter. “We tried to make it so that the resources were available, and one didn’t have to be in certain locations to be able to utilize them.”
GoFly recruited Nidhi Chaudhary from HeroX (created by the XPRIZE founders) to lead its prize team and introduced the HeroX crowdsourcing platform for enterprises and innovators to run its backend operations and outreach activities with innovators and supporters.
A large team of GoFly “Masters” and “Mentors” — including many VFS members — was recruited to provide teams with expert advice.
This included the production of 54 one-hour online Master lectures by “giants of aerospace,” that covered everything from preliminary aircraft design, systems engineering, fabrication and testing through to finance and fundraising. VFS leadership held a session on using its extensive VTOL research resources. These lectures were viewed over 40,000 times by GoFly innovators before they were made available to the general public.
With the launch of the competition in 2017, Lighter reached out to VFS, remarking that, “Building anything is hard. Building revolutionary technology is extremely hard. For all AHS members, if they’d like to share their expertise with teams, we’d love to have them participate as mentors…. Becoming a mentor means that one can be an ambassador to the next and current generation of aerospace leaders, and have an impact on the future of flight.”
“We had over 250 mentor matchups between our teams and these experts,” said Lighter, explaining that some teams requested as many as 10 mentors.
GoFly also partnered with industry leaders to allow teams to access free software and products, or product discounts, throughout the competition. VFS was one of only four non-profits to also offer benefits, and the only one to offer a free year-long VFS membership to all competitors.
Three Phase Competition
The GoFly competition was divided into three phases.
In June 2018, $20,000 awards were given to each of ten teams from five countries in Phase I, based on a written report summarizing the project. Points were given for technical content andfeasibility; novel innovation and market considerations; safety considerations; project execution feasibility; and organization, clarity and succinctness.
More than 600 innovators from 95 countries — from all six inhabited continents — submitted 164 aircraft design reports in Phase I that were evaluated in a range of specific categories by 97 industry domain-specific experts. The focus of the Phase I competition was really on the process of writing a report and documenting important elements, and to a lesser extent feasibility and safety, at this paper stage.
In March 2019, prize amounts of $50,000 was given to five teams — selected from 31 submissions from 16 countries — in Phase II that submitted a written report and documentary proof that a prototype, demonstrator or the device had flown and successfully performed the following maneuvers: vertical or near-vertical takeoff followed by steady flight out of ground effect; aborted landing; and vertical or near-vertical landing.
The Phase III Final Fly Off was always designed as an invitation-only event, but the date shifted from the originally announced date of October 2019 to February 2020 to give teams more time to qualify.
Boeing offered three cash prizes: a $1,000,000 Grand Prize awarded for the best compliant overall Fly Off score (based on size, noise and speed); a $250,000 prize for the quietest compliant entry; and a $250,000 prize for the smallest compliant entry.
At the Farnborough International Airshow in July 2018, Pratt & Whitney announced that it would offer a $100,000 Disruptor Prize to be awarded the aircraft design offering a “disruptive advancement of the state of the art.”
The rules made the competition extremely challenging, with many believing it might not even be possible. “If this were easy, you wouldn’t need a $2M prize,” Lighter would later comment.
The maximum dimensions of the vehicle could not be more than 8.5 ft (2.6 m), the operator (pilot) had to have an open-air flight experience with an unobstructed field of view, and a single person had to be able to easily move the aircraft across a hard, level surface. The Fly Off consisted of two phases: technical inspection and flight demonstration, with measurements of scored and unscored attributes occurring in each phase. In order to win the Final Fly Off, the team would have to be the best in speed, size and noise, and fly for at least 20 minutes, based on a scoring formula.
During the Fly Off, the aircraft could be flown manned or unmanned, but if unmanned it had to carry an anthropomorphic test dummy (5 ft 9 in / 175 cm) and the operator or ballasted dummy had to weigh 200 lb (90.7 kg) or more. This included clothing, gloves, helmet, personal parachute, other personal protective equipment and a sensor package (if unmanned), as well as any ballast required to meet the minimum weight.
During the flight demonstration, the aircraft had to:
Take off and land within a 30-ft (9.1-m) diameter cylinder with virtual walls 12 ft (3.7 m) high.
Conduct a speed run of six laps around two pylons spaced a 0.5 nm (0.9 km) apart, in less than 12 minutes.
Demonstrate the capability to abort a landing by performing a touch and go within the 30-ft diameter cylinder.
After loitering to achieve a total flight time greater than 20 minutes, descend and land without violating the takeoff/ landing envelope.
The boundary of the takeoff and landing area was surrounded by bricks standing upright on end every 24 inches (61 cm). If a brick was knocked over by the device, operator or downwash during any flight, this would be considered a boundary violation and a failed flight demonstration.
One of the most significant and challenging measurements during the scoring was for noise, because of the complexities of distance, wind, frequency, microphone calibration and other factors. Noise measurements would also be taken from six locations equidistant from the center of the takeoff/landing envelope and corrected to 50 ft (15.2 m). The sound level would be measured during takeoff and climb, and during descent and landing. The noise had to be 87 dBA or less during takeoff and landing, and the higher of the two sound level readings was the noise score.
The speed measurement would be taken during six laps around a course with two pylons 0.5 nm (0.9 km) apart, with the total time required to cover the 6 nm (11.1 km) used to calculate the speed score. The speed score had to be 30 kt (55.6 km/hr) or more.
After flying in the competition, all aircraft had to demonstrate a 10-minute energy reserve. This is easy to calculate by weighing an aircraft powered by a fuel burning engine, but it is much harder to calculate a 10-minute reserve on a battery-powered aircraft.
Picking a site for the Final Fly Off required a lot of legwork. An extensive search was made across the United States for a suitable location to hold it, including public, private and military airports and even some non-aviation sites like theme parks and racetracks. Key considerations included proximity to an international airport, suitable airspace, hotels and facilities, and proximity to important stakeholders like sponsors and investors. Proximity to the Silicon Valley technology cluster ultimately favored the NASA Ames Research Center at Moffett Federal Field, which had parallel 8,100 ft (2.5 km) and 9,200 ft (2.8 km) runways.
Throughout the competition and specifically in preparation for the Fly Off, safety was considered to be of paramount importance. To be eligible to fly at Moffett and to be allowed to make an attempt to qualify for the Grand Prize, a competitor was required to have logged a safe prior flight — consisting of 10 takeoffs, one hour total of flight relevant to the speed course flight, 10 go-around maneuvers and 10 landings to a full stop and power-down — performed at least two flights that were representative of the qualifying flight planned for Moffett, passed inspection by a representative of the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and passed GoFly’s Flight Planning Review. In addition, to comply with FAA rules, all competitive flights and flight demonstrations also had to be flown by a US licensed pilot, even if flying unmanned, which required practice.
The goal of setting such a high bar was to ensure that all flights made at Moffett Field were previously practiced flight demonstrations rather than experimental flight tests.
To host the event at Moffett Field, GoFly tapped the talents of a wide range of aviation and special event experts from across the US to plan every detail, from helping teams navigate FAA certification to competition coordination, and event and airshow management.
Past VFS Technical Director John M. Davis was approached in December 2019 to fill the role of competition coordinator in California when another volunteer had to relinquish this role because of work commitments.
For the next three months, Davis said he worked day and night on the event and found that, “the GoFly management staff from [Lighter] on down were some of the most talented and dedicated professionals I’ve ever had the opportunity to work with.”
The 21 teams from 10 countries came to Moffett Field, including all five winners of Phase II and the Phase I winners Scoop and teTra Aviation.
Teams were responsible for funding their own aircraft design and development. Most turned to friends, family and corporate sponsors to help build, test and fly hardware — and fund the cost of traveling to Moffett Field with anywhere from one to 35 team members.
In the weeks leading up to the Fly Off, more than half a dozen teams were expected to compete as the Fly Off approached while others were invited to make demonstration flights or participate in the static display.
Each team was allocated a 20 ft x 20 ft (6 m x 6 m) tent on the airport apron beside 1,133-feet (345-m) long Hangar One, an iconic reminder of a bygone era of giant dirigibles that is being restored by Google’s Planetary Ventures.
There were also two established aerospace companies (Trek Aerospace and DragonAir Aviation) and 14 teams created specifically for the GoFly competition. It was exciting to walk from tent to tent to meet the teams and learn more about the diverse VTOL aircraft designs.
The configurations covered a wide design space and included aircraft with fans and rotors; propulsors on the top, bottom and sides; fixed and tilting rotors; open and ducted propellers; RPM control and pitch control; multi-rotor axial thrust and rotor cyclic combinations; open and skinned airframes; and pilots flying in standing, seated and pronate positions.
Teams were free to choose a propulsion system. Two teams with full-scale vehicles on display had fuel-burning internal combustion engines, but most had electric motors powered by lithium-ion batteries.
GoFly obtained approval for teams to conduct test flights and practice flights at Half Moon Bay Airport on the California coast and many teams took advantage of this opportunity. Teams had to obtain certification of their aircraft from the FAA, which placed an extra burden on international competitors since they could not complete the process until their aircraft arrived in the US.
The GoFly team worked very hard to maximize the competitors’ participation in the Final Fly Off, but it was up to each team to meet all the requirements of the rules package. It was a race against the clock for most teams to log enough flight time to qualify for the Fly Off and unfortunately several teams suffered accidents in the months, weeks and days prior to the Fly Off that took them out of the running.
On Friday, Feb. 28, VertiCycle and teTra made very short flights with full-scale aircraft and Jayu and Texas A&M flew subscale models in the morning. However, none of the teams were ready to make a qualifying run for the GoFly Prize that day due to fairly typical demonstrator aircraft development delays.
More demonstration flights were scheduled for Saturday, Feb. 29 (Leap Day), but they had to be cancelled due to high winds. However, the public was able to see five teams (DragonAir, Jayu, teTra, Texas A&M and Verticycle) ground-run their VTOL designs.
The Japanese team teTra from Tokyo won the $100,000 Pratt & Whitney sponsored Disruptor Award that “recognized the team that was truly innovative, who went beyond in developing their personal flying device.” Pratt & Whitney awarded the prize winner based on team interviews and aircraft inspections, rather than a flying demonstration.
The teTra design resembles a folded quadcopter, which allowed larger ducted propellers and a small wing to fit within the 8.5 ft size limit set by GoFly. In the future, teTra plans to develop an optimized design with a larger wing.
Many of the teams had been conducting extensive flight tests before the Final Fly Off.
About 10 years ago, Jeff Elkins of DragonAir Aviation in Panama City Beach, Florida, started developing Hydroflight watersport devices (powered by the water jet from a personal watercraft). He then shifted his focus and started developing a self-flying Airboard about five years ago using off-the-shelf electric motors, speed controllers and batteries.
Mariah Cain contacted Elkins in 2017 to make a custom LED suit for her Hydroflight exhibitions in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, but joined his team when she learned about his Airboard project.
DragonAir found out about the GoFly Prize just before the deadline for Phase II of the contest. After winning one of the $50,000 awards, Elkins invested it in improving the Airboard. Elkin’s social media posts since 2018 show Cain skillfully flying the Airboard 2.0 over lakes in Florida on numerous flights lasting up to 17 minutes prior to driving to California in February.
DragonAir was the only team to release photos and videos of their device being flown by a person prior to the competition. Unfortunately, Cain had an accident flying the Airboard 2.0 at Half Moon Bay Airport just prior to the Final Fly Off, after adding the necessary ballast.
Texas A&M also planned to compete but crashed their full-scale, coaxial Harmony entry in Texas a couple of weeks earlier and could not repair it in time.
The 35-member Silverwing team from TU Delft in the Netherlands set up in Byron, California, about 40 miles (65 km) away. The team made the first outdoor free flights of their S1 aircraft after they arrived in California, but they ran out of time to satisfy all the flight-testing requirements.
GoFly activities extended over three days, and included a reception at the Hiller Aviation Museum, a full-day conference with aerospace and technology leaders and team presentations, and the public showcase day. The progress and enthusiasm of the teams was inspiring.
On Leap Day, the Final Fly Off activities included a number of kid-focused science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) displays. The local VFS San Francisco Bay Area Chapter organized a STEM booth. A static aircraft display and an airshow at Moffett Field featured a Boeing PT-17 Stearman biplane performing an aerobatic display and a para-rescue flight demonstration by the California Air National Guard’s 129th Rescue Wing, flying a Lockheed HC-130J Hercules and Sikorsky HH-60G Pave Hawk.
“It was pretty clear that there was never any question in Gwen’s mind that she was going to do this,” recalled Newman.
“The GoFly Prize was designed to do something impossible,” declared VFS Executive Director Mike Hirschberg after the competition. “Designing something that was as small and as quiet as possible, while also having to fly fast and for a long while was believed to be impossible. The testing requirements, and typical trials and tribulations of performing a demonstration at a specific time and place, all added to the challenge. But the teams proved that it is possible.”
“This VTOL enthusiasm has caught the attention of students and educators, aerospace leaders, defense agencies, the Silicon Valley tech sector, investors, start-ups and the general public,” Newman added. “GoFly joins VFS and Uber Elevate as the most significant drivers of personal vertical lift excitement and innovation.”
In April 2020, VFS recognized Lighter’s vision and multi-year leadership with the Society’s prestigious Paul E. Haueter Award for an outstanding technical contribution to the field of vertical takeoff and landing aircraft development other than a helicopter or an operational vertical flight aircraft.
The VFS press release stated, “Over the past five years, Lighter has been a ‘force of nature’ — formulating and inspiring others with her vision of personal flying devices, securing over $2M in sponsorships, and launching an international competition that drew 3,800 innovators participating on 854 teams (100+ university teams) from 103 countries on six continents. The GoFly Final Fly Off on Feb. 29, 2020 drew dozens of the world’s most inventive vertical flight innovators; the Grand Prize was not claimed, so the competition continues.”
“The $1M Grand Prize is still up for grabs,” confirmed Lighter in a mid-April interview with Vertiflite. “Current teams will remain in the competition and new teams are welcome to join. We will be announcing the new schedule once the [global novel coronavirus] pandemic has cooled a bit.”
“GoFly remains committed to supporting our teams and to pushing the boundaries of personal flights,” she said, adding, “I think we are very close to making pure human flight a reality.”
Lighter also remarked that it was heartwarming to see the sense of community that the GoFly competition had engendered. “We’re also so pleased to see at Moffett [Field] teams actively helping each other. Yes, it was a competition, but more than anything else the teams really came together… all in this one mission to create these personal flyers.”
GoFly was more than just a flying competition. It inspired many tens of thousands of people to think about vertical flight in a whole new way — as potentially accessible to them. Lighter noted that when they first started out with the GoFly competition, “we were hoping to achieve those basic goals. But as we continued, we realized we had 3,800 innovators and it was really global. We realized that we had an opportunity to educate, to inspire the next generation and… propel innovation in a number of ways.”
“I think that GoFly, with our mentoring and support, has hopefully made the industry more accessible,” she continued. “I’d like to thank our terrific team that has been working day in and day out to create this innovation, and thank our GoFly family, our staff, our advisors and organizational partners, VFS, who have not only nurtured our teams but who have helped us to create this incredibly dynamic community.”
“We feel so very fortunate to have been able to partner with everyone in our community and we are incredibly excited to see what comes next from our teams and innovators around the world.”
“GoFly is evolving,” said Lighter. “We are committed to this competition, and we are looking to future competitions as well.”
About the Author
Ken Swartz runs the agency Aeromedia Communications in Toronto, Canada. He specializes in aerospace market analysis and corporate communications. He’s worked in the regional airline, commercial helicopter and commercial aircraft manufacturing industries for 25+ years and has reported on vertical flight since 1978. In 2010, he received the Helicopter Association International’s “Communicator of the Year” award. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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