President Franklin Roosevelt’s aviation chief had a New Deal plan to get everyday Americans up in the air. But he needed help.
So Eugene Vidal sparked a competition among the nation’s tinkerers, engineers and aircraft makers. His challenge: build a “rugged, safe and simple” aircraft that would be as easy to drive as a car and cost roughly the same, about $700.
“In a short time,” he predicted, “America will become a nation of pilots.”
It didn’t. But more than 80 years later, a new wave of flight buffs is doubling down, arguing that breakthroughs in propulsion, materials and autonomy have opened up a new path to that old dream.
On Tuesday, a group called GoFly, funded by aerospace giant Boeing, launched a $2 million competition to spur the development of jet packs, hoverboards, human-bearing drones and assorted other flying objects for personal use. Unlike the sky taxis being pursued by Uber and many others, the contest is about strapping in a single individual.
The GoFly Prize is of a kind with myriad contests that have come before, helping to propel driverless cars and private rockets forward, and it’s reminiscent of what Elon Musk is doing by encouraging development of his idea for a speedy Hyperloop underground pod conveyance system.
The rules are highly specific. The device has to be simple to use, safe and capable of traveling 20 miles without a recharge or refueling. It has to be luggable by a single person (a dolly’s okay, but not a motorized one.) And it has to take off and land pretty much vertically.
For the final flyoff, the human operator (or 200-plus-pound test dummy for the less confident entries) must “not endure extreme sustained g forces greater than 5 g or dangerous impulses from hard landings.” That’s in the range of a stomach-churning roller coaster.
As for form, “we leave open a huge white space for innovation,” said Gwen Lighter, an entrepreneur and chief executive of GoFly who brought the idea to Boeing. “While we love jet packs . . . there could be flying motorcycles. There could be flying people. There could be something you stand on. There could be something over your head.”
There are YouTube-famous versions of each of those in some form or another, including some blade-happy variations that look like human Cuisinarts.
"It looks too safe; I think they need a few more spinning blades of death and maybe some flames shooting out," said one commenter on a video of a Russian-made hoverbike flying gingerly around a warehouse to a hyped-up score. "Not enough rusty nails on the seat or broken glass on the handle grips," quipped another.
And indeed, contest organizers said gleaning insights into safety is a key goal. They may see riffs on existing safety tools, such as the sense and avoidance technologies powering driverless cars, or “ballistic recovery systems,” such as parachutes that already encompass entire aircraft, Lighter said. There are requirements for backups in case key systems fail, she said.
"We are encouraging, and frankly mandating, that our teams build with safety as our priority," Lighter said.
The teams also all have to comply with Federal Aviation Administration rules, she said. The FAA generally treats jet packs as “ultralight vehicles,” for example. Ultralights must weigh less than 254 pounds, excluding safety devices, and can’t go faster than 55 knots, or 63 miles per hour, according to federal rules.
“It all depends on the characteristics of the specific jet pack. If it qualifies as an ultralight, the operator can fly it without an FAA pilot certificate. Otherwise, the latter is required,” an agency spokesman said.
For Boeing, which spends billions on research and development yearly, the contest is an efficient way to both make a splash and uncover potential talent. Greg Hyslop has his eye on university engineering programs around the world, among others. The idea of a personal flying device is actually doable for small teams with limited resources, he said, and the insights could be used for bigger craft as well.
“There’s enough money there that hopefully it’s going to attract some really top-notch talent and some really great ideas,” said Hyslop, Boeing’s chief technology officer. There are $20,000 prizes for the best-written plans, $250,000 awards for the quietest and smallest entries, and a $1 million grand prize.
There will be a great uptick in new forms of air travel, potentially democratizing the skies, Hyslop said. “I just think it’s bound to happen, so when it happens our company needs to be there,” he said. Same with the United States, given intense global competition. “We have led in aerospace innovation since its inception, and we need to continue,” he said.
For decades, jet-pack prototypes have shown up at military demonstrations and Super Bowl stadiums. They and their new-era brethren play into what boosters call the “universal dream of pure human flight.”
“There’s a convergence of so many breakthrough technologies that make this the first moment in history where it’s actually possible to build a device where people fly,” Lighter said. The new potency of battery power, 3-D metal printing, lightweight materials, and the software and equipment that keep drones in balance and autonomous cars on the road are all part of the new mix, she said.
It’s a thrilling moment for people like her, Lighter said, recalling how as a girl she would throw herself “out of trees for another millisecond of lift.”
Roger Connor, curator for vertical flight and unmanned aircraft at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum, said “things are wide open.”
“It’s hard to think of anything in my lifetime that’s been as dynamic as this in the aerospace field, Connor said. “Not since the early days of powered flight have we seen so many new and interesting approaches to flight appearing simultaneously.”
Connor said he’s seen some 25 different takes on so-called electric vertical takeoff and landing craft, or eVTOLs, all of differing levels of seriousness and capability. Connor, along with other experts, will be on hand to offer advice to the GoFly teams over the course of the two-year contest.
He thinks the explosion in drone and other technologies will keep migrating over to manned flight but that serious challenges remain.
"The gulf between reality and expectation in this type of personal air vehicle or urban air transport has always been quite high," Connor said.
The New Deal call for cheap suburban airplanes that could fit in garages and take commuters quickly over the “traffic snarls that retard the progress of automobiles,” as Vidal put it, didn’t pan out.
There were some notable entries, Connor said, such as the Autogiro, which had foldable rotors and could fly about — or tool along roads at 25 miles per hour. But the prices never got close to the sweet spot. They ended up in the realm of “new home money, not new car money,” Connor said. While there was some technical success, “the operational goal was never achieved,” he said.
Among today’s challenges, in addition to cost, are the critical issues of noise and infrastructure, Connor said, including how the craft would fly and land without wasting time or negatively affecting those on the ground.
“Making the aircraft practical is quite feasible. That’s what we’re on the cusp of right now,” Connor said. “What we have to do is make the transportation system that they would use be attractive.”