The dream of flight was never meant to be confined to a 28-inch seat with 150 strangers and miniature bags of pretzels. Early aircraft were fabric and wood extensions of their pilots’ bodies, technological exoskeletons carrying a dream into the air. While the laws of aerodynamics and engineering drove planes into long aluminum tubes with wings, fiction maintained the dream of a personal flying tool that people could strap to their back, ride through the air, and then arrive intact and on-time at work. For decades, inventors endeavored to turn jetpack from fictional whim to real machines, with some limited success, but nothing so world-changing as to enter the mass market. GoFly, a Boeing-sponsored competition announced today, wants to turn jetpacks from an aviation novelty to an everyday tool. To do that, it’s inviting people from around the world to enter a two-year contest, with $2 million total in prizes, for the creation of a personal flying device that can carry an individual 20 miles without refueling or recharging.
“When people look at the sky and say ‘look, that plane is flying,’ we want to change it to “‘look, that person is flying,’” says GoFly CEO and founder Gwen Lighter.
Animating the GoFly vision is a combination of childlike wonder and modern technological convergence. Jetpacks in fiction and for use in outer space predate GoFly by decades, and even the U.S. Army intermittently funded research into personal flying platforms from the 1950s through the 1970s. But it’s a slew of modern technologies that has Lighter and the rest of GoFly so bullish on modern jetpack variants.
First, there’s autonomy, like that seen in the development of self-driving cars, which could make plotting flights safer. (Though, it’s worth noting, cars mostly operate in two dimensions, and navigating a vertical axis is a further challenge unto itself). There’s also the increased capacity of batteries, with Lighter specifically citing the example of an all-electric bus that claimed a 1,000 mile trip on a single charge. There are the cheap and sophisticated stabilization controls from the world of drones, which can automatically hold aircraft in level flight. And there’s the preponderance of strong lightweight materials, which make unusual vehicles like the Plimp possible, when they wouldn’t have worked decades ago. And then there is the advent of 3D printing and metal-printing, which means anyone from a photographer in Thailand to a…