A total of $2 million were set aside from Boeing as prize money waiting for engineers and inventors to make important advances in aerospace. Half of it goes to the person or organization that invents a personal flying machine up to Boeing’s standards. You might think the standards are harsh, but considering the impact of such a device, they are realistic.
According to Ars Technica, the machines have to be “safe, quiet, ultra-compact, near-VTOL personal flying devices capable of flying 20 miles while carrying a single person.” That’s not an unreasonable request if millions of people are to get equipped with these things. Safety is of utmost importance, and noise is going to be a very important factor as noise pollution is already critical in certain populated places and we all know how annoying drones sound.
The $1 million top prize might seem great at first but in the world of aerospace engineering and aviation, that’s akin to lunch money. If you have enough funds and talent to invent such a machine, than you probably already have at least $1 million in equipment, materials and human capital.
The idea goes way back to the 50’s and 60’s and the first personal jetpacks date to at least the 1960s. But they have always had severe range and safety limitations, preventing them from becoming widely used.
Today’s personal flyers are mostly rocket suits, jetpacks that work on water instead of air or hoverboard-style drone-like platforms with propellers. One inventor has been dubbed the British Iron Man for his rocket suit, while an experimental jet-powered hoverboard called the FlyBoard Air was unveiled last year at Naples Florida.
But the real opportunity for personal transportation technologies might be in the realm of personal drones. The same technological trends that are on the cusp of revolutionizing the car industry—more powerful electric motors, batteries, and software—are also starting to affect the aviation industry.
Designing with four, eight or more propellers has its advantages compared to traditional “helicopter” style. It has been made possible by more powerful batteries and lighter electric motors, but it has also been enabled by better software which micro-adjusts each motor separately. A quadcopter would be difficult for a human being to pilot if she had to manually control the power supplied to each motor the way a pilot does on a conventional aircraft. Instead, quadcopters and other modern electric aircraft have software that handles these low-level details automatically.
While the idea of electric aviation doesn’t seem crazy, there are serious reasons to doubt that participants in the Boeing competition will be the ones to crack this technological nut. A big one is the size of the prize. One million dollars is a tiny amount of money in the aviation world. Larry Page has reportedly spent $100 million on Kitty Hawk, and several VTOL aircraft startups have raised tens of millions of dollars in venture capital.