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25th of June 2018

Automotive



Boeing's $2 Million Challenge to Make the Sky Fun Again—With 'Flying Motorbikes'

For as long as humans have walked the Earth, they have looked to the skies, dreaming of flight. More than a century into the age of aviation, those dreams have been realized, in the form of too tight economy seats jammed into metal tubes and, for the lucky, forgettable movies on minuscule screens.

Now groups of students, innovators, and entrepreneurs around the world are hoping to reinvigorate the public's love for life aloft by building personal flying machines that can carry a person 20 miles without stopping to refuel or recharge batteries. The results aren't quite "flying cars" (WIRED's accepted term for the aircraft the likes of Uber hope to deploy for passenger service). They're smaller, hovering in the shared space between jetpacks and motorbikes, with a focus on fun over practicality. And compared to economy class, they look like a wonderful way to hit the skies.

These groups are taking part in a two-year competition backed by Boeing, with $2 million up for grabs. The GoFly Prize, designed to spur teams to build flyers that are “safe, useful, and thrilling,” launched in September 2017. Today, it announced 10 winners of its first phase, chosen by a panel of 97 judges from a field of more than 600 entrants.

Among them is Team Leap, a European startup well staffed with engineers whose résumés include jobs at Boeing, Airbus, Bell, and Lockheed Martin. It created a machine called Vantage, which looks like a futuristic, angular motorbike, with the wheels ripped off and replaced with buttresses supporting a ring of five large rotors underneath.

Hummingbuzz was designed by students from Georgia Tech. It has a motorbike shaped seat on top of twin fans.GoFly

Aeroxo LV, a team from Latvia, also went for the motorbike seat design, but put its rotors front and back, in four arrays of four fans. The design allows them to tilt for vertical takeoff and landing, but then swivel back for more efficient horizontal flight. Georgia Tech's Hummingbuzz offers yet another take on the flying motorbike idea, with two very large fans underneath, encased in a large white duct, with a red mesh on top to stop the rider from falling through the spinning blades. Trek Aerospace’s Flykart 2 goes for more of a reclined racing seat position, with the rider in the center, surrounded by 10 rotors, like a comfortable, scaled-up quadcopter drone.

The variety of approaches shows the flexibility that innovations in aviation tech are allowing after a century of planes sporting slight variations on the tube n'wings look. New lightweight materials, electric propulsion using small fans, and stability-enhancing computer controls mean that traditional engines, and flight control surfaces like flaps, are no longer a necessity. Designers don’t have to stick with the traditional models of airplanes and helicopters to build new sorts of aircraft.

Trek Aerospace designed the FlyKart 2. It's a single-seat, open-cockpit, 10-rotor, aircraft.GoFlyTeam Leap, based in the UK, designed a five-rotor airbike.GoFly

“The winning designs demonstrate that there are still creative, bold innovators worldwide who are captivated and inspired by powered flight,” Boeing CTO Greg Hyslop said in a statement. They may never lead to a commercial aircraft, but competitions like this inspire students and innovators, in a similar way to Elon Musk’s Hyperloop Pod competition. And for Boeing, it's an easy way to spot young talent and recruit new engineers into its ranks.

Each phase one winner gets $20,000 each to continue refining its design. Phase two, which isn’t limited to these 10 flyers, will go beyond designs to judge physical prototypes, with a $50,000 prize awarded next March. The final stage is a fly-off, scheduled for late 2019, with a $1 million prize for the best overall entry, and smaller prizes for the quietest, smallest, and most disruptive innovation.

When it comes to actually getting these machines certified to fly in the US, the competitors could look to emulate Larry Page’s Kitty Hawk. The Google cofounder’s company is building a recreational flying machine small enough to fit into the FAA’s ultralight category, and planning to sell it for use over water, which gets around restrictions on flying over crowded areas. Another bonus: no pilots license is needed.

That gets back to GoFly’s goal of making the skies accessible to everyone, and the dream of personal flight a (pleasant) reality.

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