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Jaka Verbic is a lot like the comic book super-speedy superhero “The Flash.”  Although a self-described quiet kid, “I always liked to move around as fast as possible.  For a long time, I thought a car was as good as it got.  Then at age 5, I went on a plane for the first time and immediately thought that it was the ultimate thrill.”

Now, as captain of the multi-national GoFly Prize’s Team rFlight, Jaka and his teammates Rick Kwan, Clarence Akagu, Thierry Marin-Martinod, Amir Morris, Brent Lessard, Brandon Forys, Keith Stormo, among others, are taking the thrill of flying to new levels.

“Indeed, seeing such a strong push in the aviation industry to explore the personal aspects of flight was the ‘wow’ moment for me,” Jaka relates.  “I know that the time must be right for big steps in the direction of individual flight.”

And the first step in that direction for Jaka was to assemble the right team. That meant crossing mountains, seas, country borders, and even oceans.  In fact, what makes Team rFlight so unique is that it not only includes residents of different countries, but its personal flying machine is being built, part by part, in those countries.  Moreover, all team members have different areas of expertise.

The one thing that they all have in common is an intense passion for conquering the skies.

For Rick, who hails from California and is the avionics guru on rFlight, that passion began as a toddler. “When I should have been playing in a preschool sandbox, I was staring at airplanes in the sky, and wondering why some had wings toward the front, like a Piper Cub, and others were further back, like a Douglas DC-6 or Lockheed Electra.”

Clarence, a Texas resident who is on the mechanical and manufacturing teams, had similar childhood dreams. “As a 5 or 6-year-old, I would draw flying cars or pods and name the vehicles with a model,” while Thierry, fromFrance, who oversees engineering systems, “always identified myself as the fighter pilots in the movies.”  For Brandon, who hails from Canada, it wasn’t the silver screen, but the small screen.  “I became interested in exploring aviation as a hobby at a young age after playing Microsoft Flight Simulator 2002 and becoming fascinated by aircraft and how they work.”

Keith — who designed the competition vehicle and leads its manufacturing and testing — started flying gas-powered model rockets and airplanes as a youngster, before taking flying lessons in high school and soloing shortly thereafter.  Similarly, Finland resident Amir’s earliest exposure to flight was model planes using glow-plug engines and “working on developing early electrical models, initially using power delivery over the tethering/control line.”

What draws them and their other colleagues together is GoFly’s emphasis on innovation – as Brent, from Canada, says so well: “the possibility of re-imagining how an individual experiences flight, and making the individual the focus of that experience.”

For each of the rFlight team members, the opportunity to follow in the footsteps of da Vinci, the Wright Brothers, Charles Lindbergh, Alan Shepard, Neil Armstrong, and other aviation pioneers only heightens their excitement – and their commitment to invent a new means of transportation utilizing technologies of which their ancestors of flight could only dream.  “This is a chance to rethink how flight should work,” Rick declares.

More than that, though, the rFlight team is equally passionate about the myriad applications for good that personal human flight holds. Explains Brent, “There is an opportunity for our craft to be employed where relief aid, medical goods, and trained emergency response staff can be quickly deployed to difficult to reach areas or areas that become isolated due to a natural disaster or other events. This could increase response times, make previously difficult areas accessible, and alleviate the effects of increasingly frequent disasters. It would also be convenient for travel, reducing surface congestion, decreasing commute times, and these flyers would be able to utilize the same infrastructure as cars thanks to the similar size envelope.”

Of course, before all this can occur, the team has to mesh all its talents and experiences – even though the members are not always physically located in the same place.  If a task is overwhelming, Jaka explains, “we divide it into manageable chunks and complete them step by step.  So it is essential that we all listen to each other.”  And as Thierry says, there is a great benefit to working as a team. “The best ideas emerge from the team, problems are solved better and faster from the team. And the celebration of victory is more tasteful when shared with the team!”

Think you have what it takes to create a personal flyer, win close to $2M, and change the world? There is still time to join the challenge here: https://www.herox.com/GoFly.




On his 13th birthday, Anthony Windisch’s parents took him to see “Return of the Jedi,” one of the “Star Wars” films.  Sitting in the theater, he became enthralled with the cinematography and the story unfolding before him. And an idea began forming in his mind.

When he and his parents were leaving the theater, he thought about what he had seen. “Deep down inside I realized what I wanted to do with my life,” says the captain of the GoFly Prize team Phattony’s Rock&Roll Flying Motorcycle Circus. “From that moment on, I knew I wanted to be a Speeder bike mechanic.”

Tony, an Oklahoma native, is putting his inner Jedi skills to work as he builds his personal flyer. In fact, he’s been tinkering and building aircraft of various types ever since.

“My interest was in developing a ducted fan personal flyer,” he explains, noting that this is akin to an ultra-lite craft but with hovering capabilities. “I built models and tested different design configurations using R/C parts for years to get it right. Some worked, some did not!”

He had the opportunity to write and apply for a patent on the resulting data and technology of his experiments. “So I did,” he exclaims. “And I have not stopped refining my design since.”

The GoFly Prize is enabling Tony to take his refined design to the next level…” it’s an opportunity to bridge the gap between science fiction and science fact!”

But the simple fact is that flying is in Tony’s blood.  His father and grandfather were both in the Army Air Corps. “My old man was career Air Force,” he notes.  “Both of them loved flying and wanted to share this wonderful experience with me.

When I was 9, my father took my brother and I up in a Piper Cub aircraft. As we flew, he let both of us steer the airplane and he explained how the contraption worked. What the levers and dials did and displayed. It was really a formative experience.”

And over the years, his father and grandfather not only shared other such experiences, they also “contributed their support to my projects and prototypes.”

Tony envisions that his personal flyer and others like it will be utilized by first responders in various capacities. It will improve emergency assistance in natural disasters, at remote locations and in inaccessible places. “For the most part, civil services will foster the growth of this niche within the wider aviation industry,” he relates.

In the meantime, he says that “the greatest hurdle is gravity.”  Ever the optimist, he plans to use capital, resources, and capability to do nothing less than “conquer gravity.”

Think you have what it takes to create a personal flyer, win close to $2M, and change the world? There is still time to join the challenge here: https://www.herox.com/GoFly.



What do Leonardo da Vinci, Orville, and Wilbur Wright, and Spanish engineer Juan de la Cierva have in common with fireworks?  At first glance, one would say “nothing.”

But to Guillermo Villabrille, they mean everything; taken collectively, “they made my imagination fly!”  Now, he is striving to actualize that imagination by participating in the GoFly Prize.  He is captain of the Gyrobikers team, based in Spain.

For Guillermo, his enchantment with flight was launched at a fireworks show when he was a young boy.  There, he noticed a wooden disk with rockets placed on the edge, which rotated very fast due to the reaction between the combustion of the gunpowder and the centrifugal force. Suddenly, the disk accidentally detached itself from the shaft that held it and “I was fascinated and very surprised with the way it was flying, with a straight and level flight so stable that it seemed that it would never end,” he vividly recalls.  “I will never forget that moment.”

Nor will Guillermo ever forget the impact that his aviation ancestors have had on his life.  “I have always admired Leonardo da Vinci, for his knowledge in all areas of science. I think that’s why I like to study nature from all possible points of view,” he notes.  He also cites the Wright brothers, for being “pioneers and creating their own methodology to develop the aerodynamic profiles of their prototypes,” and Juan de la Cierva, the inventor of the Autogiro, a single rotor aircraft, because his ”great imagination and capacity for abstraction allowed him to foresee the advantages of autorotation in the safety of aircraft.”  Indeed, as a child Guillermo would spend hours reading anything that spoke of this visionary trio.

Guillermo also cites as a life influencer the ancient Greek mathematician and physicist Archimedes, noting that when he first discovered his eponymous principle, “I felt something amazing: what we experience when we discover the secrets and mechanisms that explain us or make us understand the philosophy of nature. And one of the most beautiful and surprising branches you can devote to understand is the fluid mechanics and in particular aerodynamics.”

Nevertheless, it is another more current mathematician – the Russian Alexandre Kirillov – who most influenced Guillermo’s decision to participate in the GoFly Prize.  He read a 2004 lecture that Kirillov gave at the American Mathematical Society, in which he compares the decision to becoming a scientist to catching a train traveling at full speed. Indeed, while you are learning well-known facts and theories, many new important achievements happen. So, Kirillov said, “you are always behind the present state of the science. The only way to overcome this obstacle is to ‘jump’, that is, to learn very quickly and thoroughly some relatively small domain and have only a general idea about all the rest.”

Guillermo has jumped in with both feet when it comes to his team’s Gyropack, its GoFly Prize entry. He explains that until now, all types of multirotor vehicle take-off and landing aircraft have been observed, in the form of single-person aircraft, hoverbikes, and aerial taxis.  But unlike the gyroplane or the helicopter, in the event of engine failure or electrical failure VTOLs do not enter into autorotation to glide safely. With his device, he intends to demonstrate that in case of failure the device is safe and stable when it performs an autorotation maneuver, despite the small size of the disk.

To this end, Guillermo has already patented, together with the device, a system that “allows me to improve the windmill brake effect with respect to the gyroplane or helicopter, so that the circular wing with blades inside becomes a very effective rotary parachute. Our claim is the same as that of the entire aeronautical industry: That flying is increasingly safe and accessible to everyone.”

Think you have what it takes to create a personal flyer, win close to $2M, and change the world?  There is still time to join the challenge here: https://www.herox.com/GoFly.

Editor’s Note: We’re excited to introduce you to the innovative, bold, and talented individuals competing in GoFly. Our teams come from all over the world, shaped by their diverse backgrounds and unique life experiences. We can’t wait to see what they’ll build, but in the meantime, get to know the people behind the devices.



Sometimes, dreams do come true. They certainly have for Irakli Shengelia of the Republic of Georgia.  

Irakli is the captain of Raven LLC, and his participation in GoFly is the culmination of his dream of flight that “has always been deeply rooted in my consciousness.”

He recalls that the actualization of that dream started to take flight several years ago when he realized that he could “actually build something ultra small, with available materials, that can make me fly.”

Now, through his participation in the GoFly Prize, Irakli is taking his dream to the next level—to the skies themselves.  

But, he says, his dream goes far beyond creating a personal flight machine. Indeed, Irakli has a much headier, altruistic goal.  

“The cities around the globe are experiencing huge problems related to traffic jams, air pollution and lack of free green spaces due to the number of vehicles in the streets,” he explains.  “It seems realistic, that with personal flying devices, more people will choose to perform their daily commute by air, saving the environment and having more fun in their life.”

He, himself, will have more fun in his life if his flying device “makes it all the way to the production model that will become one of the safest and most affordable ways to make people fly.”

In the meantime, it is the challenge, itself, that keeps him motivated. He says that it is exciting how GoFly matches the vision of so many inventors and dreamers all around the world.  

The time has come, he stresses: “We are about to witness the explosion of many designs that will leave the drawing boards and see the light as true technology demonstrators and practical flying devices.”

And while he still has a way to go to take his Raven into full prototype production, he keeps his eye on the ultimate prize to propel him forward.  

Indeed, he says that his motivation is best expressed in the vision of the challenge. “GoFly is about flying people….and that’s the greatest thing.”

Editor’s Note: We’re excited to introduce you to the innovative, bold, and talented individuals competing in GoFly. Our teams come from all over the world, shaped by their diverse backgrounds and unique life experiences. We can’t wait to see what they’ll build, but in the meantime, get to know the people behind the devices.



When Rishav Shrestha, captain of Nepal-based Team Garudeus, was 10 years old his parents took him on a flight to a city in Southern Nepal. The plane was a Twin Otter, and since he was in the first row, he could see the pilots in the cockpit flying the plane. “While everyone was praying as the plane was passing through areas of turbulence, I was watching with gleaming eyes the view from near the cockpit. For the first time, I saw an aerial view of the clouds, then hills & mountains, more clouds, then the plains, and then settlement!”

Needless to say, that experience — coupled with the documentaries on the Wright brothers and the space shuttle program that he’d watch on Discovery – had a profound influence on Rishav.  So much so that at a time when many kids his age are dreaming of becoming a professional athlete or an international singing star or just following in the vocational footsteps of their parents, he had already proclaimed that “I want to be a pilot and astronaut” …much to the mockery of many around me!” Of course, life turned to be way different and after a long, circuitous route, “it seems I’m back in aviation”.

Rishav says that he sees tremendous potential, both personally and commercially, in the global challenge to create personal human flyers.  Rishav believes GoFly has enabled him to “expedite the creation of a personal air-land vehicle to change urban mobility forever. It’s something I probably would have never done had I just remained a hobbyist. I am so glad GoFly happened!”

He envisions that people will be “happier” going to work or on trips because they will “conveniently fly or drive our vehicle as per need.”  He also sees the GoFly Prize as an instigator of new industries, notably ride and fly hail services, along the lines of Uber and Lyft.  Rishav predicts that while more people will travel, there will be a decrease in traffic jams on roadways, and law enforcement and civil defense will become faster and safer while rescues and emergency response will be done quicker and smoother.

While being based in Nepal has been difficult for Garudeus to source parts and materials for his flyer, he is confident that being able to fully access GoFly’s technical mentors will be “our way to go forward to solve this.”  Participation in GoFly has provided Rishav and Team Garudeus with a way back to their love of aviation. Through all the twists and turns of his life, Rishav has learned some tried-and-true lessons that continue to inspire and propel him forward.  “Mistakes make a man perfect,” “Focus, Focus, Focus,” and “Life is hard, plan for it and do things step-by-step” are the best pieces of advice I’ve gotten to date.”

Think you have what it takes to create a personal flyer, win close to $2M, and change the world?  There is still time to join the challenge here: https://www.herox.com/GoFly.

Team TREK captain Robert Bulaga and fellow engineer Jose Fierro are the first to admit they’re no spring chickens in the world of aviation. Both professional pilots, each has over 30 years of experience not only flying aircraft but also designing them. Today, however, they are focused on a new, emerging class of devices—personal flyers.  

Up until recently, Bulaga and Fierro have been at the helm of TREK Aerospace, an aviation company famous for manufacturing and selling ducted propellers, which dramatically improve the efficiency of free propellers. But three years ago, TREK  decided that building a personal flyer was the best way to showcase their innovative technology, and the FlyKart 1 was born.

“It was so ugly that only an engineer would love it,” Fierro recalls, “but it was fully functional and really showcased our capabilities.” Still, there was room to do more. When Fierro and Bulaga heard about the GoFly Prize from former NASA engineer Mark Moore, they saw the competition’s strict requirements as an opportunity to create a better vehicle that would meet market demand for a small, quiet, safe, and reliable personal flyer.

Throughout the first two phases of the competition, TREK developed a prototype, the FlyKart 2, a more user-friendly flyer. They are on track to complete the full-scale, manned version by the end of the summer. With no fancy testing facilities or big team to rely on, Bulaga and Fierro are determined to take their garage-built device to the Final Fly-Off.

TREK Technology at Work

Bulaga and Fierro met when Fierro was still at UC Berkeley, working towards his MBA. Mark Moore, then with NASA, recommended that Fierro meet Bulaga based on his interest in ducted propellers, noting that “Rob knows more about ducted propellers than anyone else in the world.”  From there, a lifelong partnership formed. Today, the two mesh well as a team because of their diverse backgrounds. Bulaga is an aerodynamicist with experience analyzing, designing, and building unconventional aircraft, while Fierro has degrees in electrical engineering and business and is a former Marine F/A-18 pilot.

“I’m a dreamer, believing that we can do anything.  Jose is more of a realist, pointing out that we can’t do everything. It’s a good balance,” Bulaga says.

Unlike several of the teams competing in the GoFly Prize, TREK is already relatively well known in the world of aviation. NASA engineers, for example, frequently ask for Bulaga’s input on their ducted propeller technology.  

“Anyone that uses ducted propellers eventually comes to us,” according to Bulaga. One of the team’s earlier aircraft was featured in the film Agent Cody Banks. TREK has also consulted and partnered with large and small companies alike, working on dozens of ducted propeller projects.  

“We’ve made a real difference in the area where we operate,” Fierro says, “and we’ll continue to thrive in environments where this critical use is applicable.”

Finding Balance and Forging Ahead

Today, of course, TREK is applying its ducted propeller technology to the next iteration of their personal flying device, the FlyKart 2, which they plan to submit as part of the next phase of the GoFly Prize. As a fully-operational company, TREK contends with a challenge that many other teams don’t face—a roster of customers and incoming orders to keep up with while working on their device. “I need to remind [Bulaga] sometimes that we need to work on other projects as well,” Fierro jokes.

Still, the two have managed to prioritize improvements to the FlyKart 2, experimenting with new batteries, introducing a lighter airframe and continually perfecting the application of their ducted propellers. Since TREK’s first electric drone over a decade ago,  progress in battery technology has improved what is possible, which is critical because electricity as a power source typically limits device endurance and flight time. And of course, their famed ducted propellers improved the FlyKart’s endurance as well.

“To produce the same thrust, our ducted propellers use only half the power of a similarly-sized, conventional propeller. The key point is that rather than waiting for energy density of batteries to improve even further, we’re already solving the endurance challenge,” Bulaga explains. He points out that ducts provide additional advantages—being shrouded, the spinning props are inherently quieter and safer.   

As the team continues to progress through Phase III, Bulaga and Fierro look forward to spending more time testing their device and plan to make additional enhancements to the FlyKart 2. They want to, for instance, redesign the airframe to be lighter and more energy-efficient as well as add more safety features.

“It’s natural for people to wonder about the safety and reliability of these devices, but safety is paramount to us. We want people to feel secure when operating these. At the end of the day, the only thing that will change people’s mind is proof so that’s our top priority,” Fierro says.

“We expect to be flying the improved FlyKart 2 this summer. Keep an eye out for us,” Bulaga adds.

Innovation is business as usual for the students in Dr. Moble Benedict’s Advanced Vertical Flight Laboratory at Texas A&M University, but when the lab members first heard about the GoFly Prize, they knew it would be a challenge unlike anything they’ve ever experienced. Still, Benedict and his students formed a team, Texas A&M Harmony, and started brainstorming.

The team spent over a month mulling over some of the competition’s most challenging requirements. From building a device small enough to fit in a garage, to ensuring that the noise it generates does not exceed 87 decibels, there were numerous elements to consider, from the overall vehicle design to the propulsion system.

Armed with a concept, the team embarked on Phase II of the GoFly Prize facing an even more difficult task: building the device. Through simulations and real flights, team Texas A&M Harmony tested 200-300 thousand design iterations of their device prototype, the Aria, a high-TRL (technology readiness level) compact rotorcraft. Now, as they continue to Phase III, this group of students is pushing the boundaries of personal aviation, inspired by both transportation’s past and its future.

Finding Inspiration Everywhere

Though Texas A&M Harmony is made up of students specializing in a variety of aviation and aerospace disciplines, the team became aware early on that to thrive in the GoFly Prize, they’d have to get outside their comfort zones and draw inspiration from their surroundings as well as from historic innovations. For Benedict, the invention of the automobile is a useful reference for envisioning personal aviation.

“Before automobiles, there were horses and carriages, or trolleys, and people were fairly limited in how far they could travel and how quickly. Then, when the automobile came about, everything changed,” Benedict says. “Suddenly people were able to drive further and get to their destinations much faster. That human mobility and freedom to move around made a big impact on where people lived, worked, and traveled.” Over time, Benedict predicts, personal flyers will be just as much an extension of their owners as cars have become.

But cars today aren’t all about getting from point A to point B—from sunroofs to tailgates, features in today’s vehicles are designed to amplify the experience of driving and car ownership. For personal flyers, experience matters too. “I was recently on a virtual reality ride at Disney where there’s this feeling of flying through the air, totally uninhibited by anything,” Benedict recalls. “And I thought, ‘That’s the feeling that this personal flyer should be creating.’ Of course, safety is a priority, and it needs to be functional, but creating that sense of freeing human flight has been our guiding force.”  

Bigger and Quieter Goals

Despite their bold ambitions, Texas A&M Harmony has learned that combining function with an extraordinary flight experience is no easy feat. The team systematically designed the rotors to minimize noise and maximize efficiency through aerodynamic models, but they still had to test their claims. Over a span of a month and a half, they built a one-third scale model of the Aria to validate their different predictions, and they tested the model’s aerodynamics and acoustic performance using rotorcraft industry standards. The results affirmed their predictions and have given the team more knowledge and confidence for Phase III.

At the same time, the team is working hard to make sure that other pieces of the puzzle are ready for Phase III as well. “We’re pushing the boundaries of an electric motor because helicopters need a lot of power to simply hover,” Saemi explains.

To make sure they were getting it right, the team conducted dynamometer tests of the motor drive system at a commercial testing facility. The dynamometer simulated the loads generated by the rotor, which is specially-built from composite materials for high strength-to-weight performance. The team also evaluated different battery chemistry to find the one that would give them the most energy per mass unit. “Ultimately, the cell we selected for our prototype is one that’s on the cutting edge of its field, built especially for the aviation community,” according to Saemi.  

With Phase I and II behind them, Texas A&M Harmony is ready to take the Aria prototype to the next level and build a full-scale device. “Everyone on the team wants the same thing. We want to get to the Fly-Off and see this device in the air, but we still have a lot of work to do,” Benedict says. Still, the team is up to the challenge. Back when Phase II was wrapping up, the team did everything in their power to complete their submission on time—even though it meant some long nights.

“No one went home for Christmas. We knew the end of Phase II was near and we just had to get this thing finished,” Benedict recalls. “But the team has never lost that positive energy, always focused on the end goal as they developed scale models, conducted flight testing and worked in the lab all through break. With that dedication, we know we’ll make it to the end.”  

There must be something in the water at the Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands. Home to the team that won the original SpaceX Hyperloop competition in January 2017 with the best overall pod, the university has produced another team of innovators ready to shake up the aviation space. Team Silverwing, one of five winners of Phase II of the GoFly Prize, has built an electric flying motorcycle designed for autonomous flight at speeds topping 60 mph.

Not surprisingly, Delft’s engineering and aerospace departments have become world famous, with faculty and staff involved in a number of high-profile projects. So when Silverwing Team manager James Murdza and technical manager Victor Sonneveld learned about the GoFly Prize and set out to build their device, the S1, the two had plenty of talent to recruit, including a few Hyperloop veterans.

Silverwing is one of the bigger teams to win Phase II of the GoFly Prize. It’s currently made up of about 30 members and counting, including students and professors from 10 different countries with expertise in eight different disciplines across six of the university’s engineering faculties. Despite its size, Silverwing is a tightly-knit family, Murdza says—a family unified in its aim to get their S1 prototype scaled up, fine-tuned and ready for GoFly’s Final Fly-Off in 2020.

Making Mentorship Count

Mentorship has played a critical role for Silverwing, as the team makes a continued effort to consult with university advisors, manufacturers, and GoFly Masters—including Dr. James Wang, senior vice president of Leonardo Helicopters and the former vice president of research and development at AugustaWestland. Known as the “Steve Jobs of Rotorcraft” by those in the industry, Wang has shared his expertise in helicopter design and advised Silverwing on how to design test flights and use different-scaled models to build up to a full-size version.

Meanwhile, when it came time to optimize the propellers for the S1, Silverwing turned directly to their manufacturer for insight. “We knew the company that made them would have the best insight into what would work, so they helped us find the right dimensions of the blades for our device. We’ve been working with manufacturers a lot in this respect, so you could say that they’ve become our advisors as well,” Murdza explains.

Internally, the team is brimming with subject matter experts too, including electrical engineers, industrial designers and aerospace professionals who were instrumental in building Delft’s Hyperloop pod. “There’s a tremendous amount of cross-collaboration and mentorship that takes place within the team, especially because we represent various education levels,” says Murdza.

This diversity of expertise has played a critical role in advancing Silverwing’s design. The suggested introduction of an aerodynamic shell around the pilot, for example, has tremendously reduced drag on the device and improved its performance. Even the orientation of the device has evolved. In its current iteration, the S1 is powered by two ducted fans that enable the device to sit on its tail for take-off and landing but rotate into a more horizontal position for flight. “There’s a lot of little detail tweaks we’ve made as well,” Murdza adds. “Small changes have made a big impact.”

Scaling and Soaring

For Silverwing, Phase II of the GoFly prize was all about testing and analysis. Because one of the Phase II requirements was to log actual flight time, the team was determined to get its half-scale model up in the air as much as possible. Yet even this large team struggled with the amount of time and volume of resources needed to execute successful test flights.

“When you test something for the first time, things break and then not only do you need time to fix them, but you also need new parts. It’s a complicated process,” Sonneveld explains. Still, Silverwing found ways to overcome challenges, tackling one hurdle at a time. “When the batteries we were using were presenting problems, we switched to a cable that made it easier to test flight. It’s all about isolating the problem and solving for it.”

The team also considers itself lucky because so far, things have managed to “work out,” just in the nick of time. But what Sonneveld attributes to luck is more likely the work of tireless perseverance. One “lucky” moment came just before the Phase II deadline when the team was executing a critical test of their new electric motor. Silvering knew they were cutting it close with testing, but logging the flight hours was vital, so they spent 12 hours in a freezing cold F-16 aircraft shelter testing the device—and it was a success. “It was a really tough day but the result was so satisfying. It made it all worth it,” Sonneveld says.

As Silverwing looks ahead to Phase III and the Final Fly-Off, Murdza, Sonneveld and rest of the team are eager to bring their full-size device to life. “It’s one thing to run prototype tests and simulations but to fly the real thing—we can’t wait for that moment,” Murdza says. And once the S1 is realized, the electronic helicopter’s applications will be vast, ranging from disaster response and offshore rescue operations to recreational use. “It will exceed the capabilities of any existing device,” says Murdza. “To fully understand its potential, you have to let your imagination run wild.”  

Team Dragonair’s project manager Mariah Cain gained first-hand experience in turning creative sparks into tangible projects at a young age, growing up in her grandfather’s machine shop. Eventually, she moved out of her small town and began working at a 3D imaging company in Arizona. There, she became interested in Hydroflight, a competitive sport in which athletes maneuver on water-powered hoverboards connected to jet-skis. It was through their mutual interest in Hydroflight that Cain met her now-teammate Jeff Elkins, who was working to marry the technology behind Hydroflight devices and drones to develop a new class of personal flyers.

Far more than just an enthusiast, Elkins, who has been called a “mad scientist” by his peers, is a drone pilot with extensive engineering experience, having designed everything from prosthetic limbs to architectural renderings. His expertise, along with Cain’s own growing interest in Hydroflight and personal aviation, drove Cain to move down to Florida and get serious about what she once considered just a hobby. There, she started working closely with Elkins and his colleague Ray Brandes on Elkins’ most ambitious project to date—the Airboard, a flying device that gets its power from eight motors and its maneuverability from the human body.

Over time, a true team took shape, complete with a clear vision, engineering prowess and perseverance. But making a flying device is a monumental challenge, not to mention the work that goes into securing funding, gaining industry recognition, and attracting public interest. As project manager, Cain knew she had to find ways to make these critical elements come together—that’s when she heard about the GoFly Prize.   

A Team of Pilots and Engineers

Though the GoFly Prize challenge was issued in September 2017, Cain and her colleagues only learned about the opportunity in April 2018. Having missed the Phase I submissions deadline, Cain, Elkins, and Brandes joined the competition during Phase II, incorporating as team Dragonair and completing their entry just in the nick of time.

Their device—now called the Airboard 2.0—has undergone many iterations even before Dragonair joined GoFly, but the team had to make a number of new key changes to be considered for Phase II. They needed to make their prototype smaller, boost flight time without overloading the device with heavy batteries, and obtain new test parts for their improved model.

Through it all, Cain has played a major role in experimentation, flying the Airboard using her body movements to control it—just take a look at her impressive flight on YouTube. “Many people ask me if it’s scary to fly, but because of all the safety stabilization, it feels natural. It’s exciting to be one of the first women involved in this style of flight. I’m grateful that I get to be a part of such a unique field at such an incredible time in history,” Cain says.

Creating the feeling of freely flying through the air, uninhibited by a massive device, was a big factor in Dragonair’s design process. “The Airboard enables you to interact with the natural world around you. It’s very empowering compared to other technologies that take away from the human connection with nature. The Airboard’s design allows the pilot to feel like they are one with the device, informing its motion by shifting their weight it in a standing position. Once people get a taste of what it’s like to fly these things, they won’t be able to get enough,” Cain says.

Don’t let the team’s focus on pure human flight fool you, though—for Dragonair, safety is a major priority. Already, the device has a mechanism in place where it can continue to fly even if up to four of its eight motors give out. In total, there are three tiers of safety conditions in place to ensure that flights are safe. For example, there will be two separate parachute systems installed (one for the pilot and one for the device).

Making the Inevitable Real

As futuristic as the Airboard may seem, it’s becoming real faster than Dragonair had imagined. Cain and Elkins say that the progression from unmanned drone to personal flyer is inevitable, especially once people can envision all the possible applications of these devices. So how does team Dragonair expect the Airboard to be used? Recreation, of course, will be a big draw. But Cain has loftier ambitions as well: “We need to get more girls on these devices to show the world what women can do,” she says.

She also believes that there’s a great deal of potential when it comes to search and rescue operations.“I recently lost a good friend to a riptide,” she says. “When something like that happens, all these boats and helicopters are dispatched but it’s so hard to find someone when you’re on such an unwieldy vehicle. A smaller device with a spectral camera can make it easier to find people and save lives.”

Personal flyers can even drive change in the agricultural space, where the eradication of harmful plants is currently not done in the most environmentally sound way. Today, aircraft with limited targeting capabilities spray harsh chemicals on massive areas of wildlife, killing not only certain flora but also their surrounding ecosystems. A heavy-lifting drone—manned or unmanned—can execute that task more sustainably simply because it can get lower to the ground and aim more precisely.

“There’s really no limit to how these devices can add efficiency to different industries,” Cain says. “We can’t wait to finally complete the Airboard that we’ve dreamt about for so long and show the world its capabilities.”

Vladimir Spinko isn’t the first to dream of a world where the speeder from the famous forest chase scene in Star Wars: Return of the Jedi truly exists—but he is among the first to actually build something resembling it. One of five winners of Phase II of the GoFly Prize, Spinko and his nine fellow members of team Aeroxo have successfully built a working prototype of the ERA Aviabike (which Spinko describes as “a flying motorbike”) and are working towards making a full-size device ready for the GoFly Prize Final Fly-Off, set for early 2020.   

Back in 2007, the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology graduate was working at investment firm I2BF Global Ventures as an analyst, handling deal sourcing, assessing technology and performing due diligence. But he wanted to do more than help fund new technology. He wanted to create it.

So, armed with colleague Eldar Razroev’s idea for the first-ever small commercial tiltrotor UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) and an early investment from I2BF’s Ilya Golubovich, Spinko and his tight-knit team co-founded Aeroxo in September 2014.

Drone Meets Driver

Spinko and Aeroxo’s other founding members Golubovich and Razroev got to work immediately, assembling a team of seasoned experts, eager second-year students and other contributors from across Moscow and Kazan who were capable of actualizing the tiltrotor UAV Spinko envisioned. But for about two years, the team struggled to get the device off the ground—literally. It wasn’t until the fall of 2016 that Aeroxo’s Moscow-based engineers executed their first successful test flight, lifting into the air a drone that looked very different from the team’s original design.

“That’s when we learned an important lesson: an ugly drone that can make transitions and fly is much better than a beautiful model that can’t take off,” Spinko says.

By 2017, the team was ready for the public to see their creation. Although they were hesitant to take their drone out of the safety of their lab where equipment and spare parts were at their fingertips, Aeroxo brought it to an exhibition in Austria, where the tiltrotor UAV withstood the test of a 2000km flight. The team knew then that they could take the device to the next level.

“Our first step was to participate in a challenge to create a large passenger drone or aero taxi,” Spinko explains. “Our design made it to the finals, but failed to win. Still, at this point, we had never built anything larger than a 35kg drone. This was our first attempt to build something that could carry a passenger, so this was a big step forward for us.”.

Eventually, the team found itself building a flying passenger vehicle that took on many different forms—a drone taxi capable of carrying several people, a small SUV with motors and rotors capable of driving and flying, and several other designs. But this wasn’t the team’s forté, and Spinko knew it.

“We had never set out to build a flying car,” Spinko recalls. “We had our tiltrotor and that’s where we needed to direct our focus. And then we finally had our breakthrough realization: why can’t a pilot just ride a large tiltrotor?” The team’s aerodynamics expert put together an early sketch of a rideable tiltrotor resembling a motorbike, and the rest is history—or perhaps, the future.

Reaching Industry Recognition

Eager to get their design in front of industry experts from Boeing, Pratt & Whitney and others, Aeroxo prepared to enter the ERA Aviabike into the GoFly Prize, but knew they had to get input from expert users first. The team solicited the input of professional bikers, welcoming their feedback on everything from the driver’s seat design, to the maximum speed and potential cost.

Within days, Aeroxo completely rearranged how a pilot would ride the Aviabike, modified the accessories to make the device more affordable overall, and made other changes based on the suggestions of its target demographic. It was only after that that the team entered GoFly’s Phase I and won, along with nine other promising teams. “The feedback we’ve received from our GoFly mentors has been invaluable,” Spinko says. “For example, they’ve encouraged us to rethink the diameter of our propellers, and we’ve been able to achieve 10 to 12 percent better performance as a result.”

Now a Phase II winner with a working prototype, Aeroxo continues to make improvements and inch closer to a full-size device, but the journey only gets more challenging. Though their signature tiltrotor has gotten them this far, Spinko says that the team is coming to terms with the fact that for a full-size model, the tiltrotor will have to be redesigned. “We’ve gotten some data back from field tests, and we now know that we need to make a number of modifications, including altering and finetuning our wingspan and number of wings, in addition to redesigning the tiltrotor mechanism,” Spinko explains.

GoFly’s size requirement, which states that the maximum single dimension in any direction between two planes cannot exceed 8.5 feet, not including the operator, has been Aeroxo’s greatest challenge thus far, and Spinko anticipates that it will remain the toughest criteria for the team. “We’ve been pleasantly surprised in some ways. Our prototype is virtually silent, for example. It’s 10 to 15 percent quieter than we predicted. But the size — that’s going to be a hurdle,” he says.

Nevertheless, the team is determined to debut the full-scale ERA Aviabike at the GoFly Final Fly-Off. And from there, the possibilities are vast. Whether the device is primarily adopted by the biker community as a recreational vehicle, or becomes a search and rescue staple that helps first responders save stranded climbers in the corners of the Swiss Alps not accessible by helicopter, Aeroxo knows ERA Aviabike will transform transportation. It’s only a matter of time.