These 5 'Jetpacks' Just Won Big at an International Competition to Build Personal Flying Devices
For Gwen Lighter, it all started in the “spaceship tree.”
Dubbed as such by Lighter and her sister, who dreamt of sailing out of it and onward through the New York skies, the gnarled crabapple tree furnished a larger purpose for many front yard afternoons. The young girls spent days on end constructing flying machines with any material they could get their hands on: bed sheets, scotch tape, cardboard from their father’s dry-cleaned shirts. The two donned makeshift Wonder Woman bracelets fashioned from tin foil and launched out of the tree in their creations, hoping this time -- or this time, or this time -- their flying dreams would come true.
Decades later, Lighter would go on to launch GoFly, a $2 million international competition for the creation of personal flying devices. It officially launched on Sept. 26, 2017, and currently supports 3,600 innovators from 103 countries, all working on various permutations of “jetpacks.”
Lighter, who attended law school and started a number of businesses before GoFly, has always kept her ear to the ground for news of flight innovations. Once she began to read about the convergence of breakthrough technologies -- electric cars, drones, new composite materials, 3D printing and other types of rapid prototyping -- she knew that things had shifted, irreversibly, toward the advent of personal flying devices.
“When you put all of these things together, it’s actually the first moment in time where we have the ability to make people fly in the manner of our childhood dreams -- in the manner of the way my sister and I would throw ourselves out of trees,” Lighter said in an interview with Entrepreneur. Her bright green eyes light up when she speaks about the burgeoning industry, and in her frazzled but energetic manner of speaking, her consecutive sentences are like connecting spark plugs. “[It’s] much more sophisticated, and better and safer, but … we can now do it. And we couldn’t do it five years ago.”
Lighter got to work reaching out to individuals and organizations in the transformative aviation industry with one question: “We want to make people fly. We think the best way to do this is to have a global competition. How do we make this happen?” While consulting with experts on propulsion, noise mitigation, aerospace and more, Lighter and her team spent over a year developing the competition’s technical rules and guidelines. They spread the word via universities, news organizations and industry groups around the world.
GoFly doesn’t make money on its own (it has a set budget from corporate sponsors including Boeing), and its three phases -- paper, prototype and the final fly off -- each involve prize money, mentorship and participants’ retaining their own intellectual property. Teams don’t need to win one phase in order to advance to the next, and GoFly still accepts new team applications on a rolling basis.
Lighter’s ideal future for the competition? That it will continue and break existing confines in traffic, sports, package delivery and even natural disaster response. “GoFlyers could be brought in to get to areas where there’s no existing infrastructure -- because it’s all been wiped out -- to be the first responders,” she said.
As far as environmental impact, Lighter said the aviation industry will likely follow the same trajectory as the automobile one -- traditional devices followed by hybrids and then, eventually, robust electric options. “For our GoFly devices, we always say what it looks like and how it works is up to you,” she said.
GoFly’s prototype phase wrapped up in April. Here’s a look at the five winning devices.
ERA Aviabike (Team Aeroxo)
Team Aeroxo hails from Latvia and Russia, and members’ years of drone-building experience have yielded a flying bike of sorts. It combines some aspects of a helicopter (the ability to take off, hover and land vertically) with the speed and range of a fixed-wing flying device. A mechanism tilts the ERA Aviabike’s motors after takeoff to a position better suited for horizontal cruise flight. “It’s like a motorbike, but you do not need roads,” said team member Vladimir Spinko.
S1 (Team Silverwing Personal Flight)
Netherlands-based Team Silverwing Personal Flight is a band of students united by an interest in flight innovation and the belief that all transportation will be electric in the future. Their personal flying device is built around a seated rider flanked by two electric motors, and everything tilts 90 degrees between its vertical takeoff and horizontal cruise positions. “Even your grandparents will be able to fly,” Thom van den Homberg said in a prototype video. “I think technology like this will change the world.”
Airboard 2.0 (Team Dragonair Aviation)
“As a 15-year-old, I knew for sure that by the year 2000, we would have flying cars,” said Jeff Elkins, member of Team Dragonair Aviation, in a prototype video. “I’ve just been nuts about it my entire life.” Headquartered in Panama City, Fla., the team has built an inverted hang glider that’s designed to fly via the same principles. The user rides in a standing position and controls the device with their body movement, and when team member Mariah Cain tried it out, she flew over water and about 100 feet off the ground.
Aria (Team Texas A&M Harmony)
Team Texas A&M Harmony calls College Station, Texas, its home base, and members prioritized creating a compact personal flying device that minimized as much noise as possible. The team envisions rolling out the Aria in neighborhoods as an everyday transportation option. “We put some special sauce into it to really make it quiet,” Farid Saemi said in a prototype video. “You can pull out of your garage, take off and go to work -- and not wake up your neighbors.”
FlyKart2 (Team Trek Aerospace, Inc.)
At the helm of Team Trek Aerospace, Inc., is Rob Bulaga -- an Air Force veteran who has spent more than 20 years designing flying vehicles ranging from fighter jets to spacecraft. The electric, single-seat FlyKart2, created at the team’s Sacramento, Calif., headquarters, employs ducted propellers with the goal to increase efficiency by using less power for the same amount of thrust. “People flying in their own personal aircraft -- it will come,” Jose Fierro said in a prototype video. “We’d love to be on the forefront of that.”