Gwen Lighter, CEO of the GoFly Prize, a $2 million USD international competition to create a personal flying device. Image: GoFly

Interview: Gwen Lighter of GoFly


Gwen Lighter, CEO of GoFly, is enthusiastic — she wants to fly, and if you want to fly, too, she wants to help. When I heard her speak at the Vertical Flight Society’s 6th Annual Electric VTOL Symposium in Phoenix, Arizona in January, I asked her afterwards for an interview. We agreed the best moment for that would be when the Phase II competition prize winners were to be announced (see today’s article on the Phase II winners); we spoke by telephone on March 18.

Competitions were a hallmark of developing naval, automotive, and aeronautical technologies. The Blue Riband, the land speed records at Daytona Beach, the Coupe d’Aviation Maritime Jacques Schneider and the transatlantic flights, encouraged engineer-inventors to rethink configurations and build on new discoveries. Last September, a study by Innovate UK and the Nesta foundation found that challenge prize programs to solve technical challenges can help develop the c-drone industry. GoFly wants inventor teams to innovate, combining new technologies in new ways to develop feasible personal flying devices. Chief sponsor Boeing is eager to promote innovation from small teams thinking outside the box.

Q: On the wire with Gwen Lighter of the GoFly Prize. Thank you for speaking with us. Perhaps you could tell us how you got the idea for the GoFly Prize and how Boeing came on board?

Gwen Lighter: Sure. Well, I like millions of people around the globe always wanted to fly. And our team was reading about the convergence of several breakthrough technologies. Some of them are things you see every day, right? The increased performance of batteries and capacitors that make electric automobiles go farther, and are more powerful than ever before. You combine that with the sense and the control systems from the drone world, which made previously unflyable configurations fly. And you combine that with 3D printing and 3D metal printing and other types of rapid prototyping, which open up the world of innovation to those outside of the confines of a large corporation. And what you have is this first moment in time when you combine that with lightweight composite materials and all of that, where we have the ability to make people fly. And so, we brought together a team that includes not only our phenomenal sponsors — Boeing as our grand sponsor, and Pratt & Whitney as a corporate sponsor — but also 20 different organizational partners. And of course, you and I met at the VFS Symposium, they are one of our organizational partners. Together, we have combined to bring the GoFly competition to open up innovation and to allow some of the world’s best builders and creators and thinkers to truly create the future and make people fly.

Q: Now, when I read about the teams that are involved in your project, they’re using distributed electric propulsion, tiltrotors, open cockpits; I feel like it’s a new golden age of reinventing flight comparable to 120 years ago when inventors in the USA and Europe were making flying machines, with steam engines and then internal combustion engines and experimenting with wing configurations, gliders and airplanes, pilot controls. So, one thing that struck me is that the GoFly teams come from around the world. Can you tell me, how many teams have applied in total from the beginning and from how many different countries?

Gwen Lighter: Sure. I love that you said that it’s a golden age of innovation for aviation. We often say that because of these breakthrough technologies. So we 100% agree with you there. At the moment, we have 3,567 innovators —

Q: Wow!

Gwen Lighter: Yes! From 101 countries, and they are divided into 817 teams. Those are all of the teams and the innovators participating in GoFly, who have come on since the beginning. And obviously, at each round the numbers become less, because GoFly, as you know, is divided into three different phases. The first phase was the paper submission, where the teams from around the world are submitting their technical specs regarding what they want their flyer to look like. And then right now, we are about to announce the second phase prize winners, who are the prototype prize winners. So they’ve actually built prototypes, whether they’re full scale or subscale, they have actually built these prototypes. And we are announcing those winners. And then of course everything culminates in the final Fly-Off event where the teams from around the world come and actually fly their personal flyers and we see that for the first time.

Q: OK. So, I saw that the first 10 winners in Phase I were announced a year ago, and that four of them have made it to Phase II. And there’s also a new entrant. I saw that there’s a Masters and Mentors program assisting the finalist teams. So how have you seen these projects develop over the past eight months?

Gwen Lighter: In June of last year we announced our 10 Phase I prize winners, but one did not have to win those prizes in order to go to the next stage. Among the prizewinners, we have Phase I teams as well as a new team joining us. So just to be clear on that. In terms of the innovations that we are seeing in all of the different designs, we have, as we said, teams from around the world who are coming up with very different designs. You had mentioned from the beginning that there were multiple types and one of the wonderful things is that, at GoFly, we fundamentally believe that innovation can come from anyone, anywhere. And so that is why we have a whole host of master lecturers and mentoring to be able to help the team in whatever aspects that they need. That’s why it’s a full program of not only a competition but support for the teams.

Q: All right. Now, the final Fly-Off, is it this fall we’re going to see the flying machines in action?

Gwen Lighter: Actually, we will have the final Fly-Off in the first quarter of 2020. So right now we are in a downflex for a site, and we will be announcing the final Fly-Off location a little bit after we announce the prize winners. But yes, all of the teams that make it to that final Fly-Off will come and fly through that course.

Q: Wow [laughter]. Now here’s a question. You know, one of the characteristics of the early days of flight, when, you know, inventors were kind of pushing the envelope about what the new flying machines looked like, was that there was injury and death. So how do you assure the safety of pilots? How do the teams assure the safety of the pilots?

Gwen Lighter: Right. Safety is our primary concern with GoFly. We promote safety in a number of different ways. The first part is that our technical rules and guidelines, which I know you’ve seen — you can find those online as well — require many different safety aspects. And we also require that — certainly in the prototype phase — that you call out all of the safety features, which are improved upon for the final Fly-Off. So that’s first, in terms of we have designed the technical rules and guidelines to promote safety in all aspects. So, too, at GoFly, we have master lectures on safety and we have mentors to work with the teams on safety. And then of course we have a number of different in-kind sponsors who provide free and discounted products and services regarding safety to all the teams that they can utilize, should they desire to do so. And then, we are working with our organizational partners, as well as regulatory agencies, to make sure that, not only for GoFly, but most importantly for what happens after the competition is over, what happens after GoFly, that these personal flyers are being built to promote safety in all aspects. Not only for the people utilizing the flyers but for everyone else.

Q: All right. I’ve read that the scored parameters at the Fly-Off will be size, noise and speed.

Gwen Lighter: Yes.

Q: And also, it’s possible to submit unmanned craft carrying a passenger, which would be a test dummy. I was wondering what kind of ratio of unmanned projects have been submitted? Are some of them optionally piloted, in other words, piloted at first and then remotely piloted later? I saw that a lot of work went into these three criteria of size, noise and speed. Maybe you could talk about that a little.

Gwen Lighter: Sure. We allow these personal flyers to be flown either manned or unmanned, as you correctly noted. At GoFly, we wanted to open up this broad white space for innovation. So we say to all of the teams: “What it looks like, and how it works, is up to you. You must have a safe flyer and you must be able to meet our threshold.” And so in terms of safety, size, noise and speed, we have the safety requirements, which you can easily see. And then in terms of noise, we say that the flyers can be no louder than 87 dBA [decibels, A-weighted sound pressure level] when measured from 50 feet (15m) away. The reason why we use that number is, there was a federal study on transient noise and it was actually on trucks passing on a highway; transients, not consistent noise. That study found that 87 dBA when measured from 50 feet away is safe for the general public. And so we said, OK, if that’s safe then that is the loudest that it could be. And then we provide, a very sharp point curve, for devices being quieter than that maximum threshold amount.

Then for size, we say the device can be no larger than eight and a half feet. The reason we have that is, we are talking about personal flyers. So personal space. A parking space is generally 10 feet. So, too, when people consider what their personal space is and what they’re comfortable with, the inside of a car is generally six feet. And so this is somewhere within that range of personal space inside of a car parking space, and what is commonly, around the globe, thought to be a personal space figure and that’s how we arrived with that.

And then of course with speed, because our competition requires what is, in essence, similar to 20 miles of distance, if one is going at 30 nautical miles per hour, then that speed works. And so once again, with all of our thresholds, with size, noise and speed, there are increased points for being faster, for being smaller, for being quieter, because those are innovations that we wanted to promote. That being said, we have 100% allowed for a broad swath of innovation within that. So we do not dictate an actual design that that works best, because we believe that our innovators with all of their creative expertise, are well able to design within those threshold levels and produce a number of different flying devices. So what we believe is that at the end of GoFly, there will be multiple types of flyers. And some may be best for first responders. And some may be best for package delivery. And some may be best for inspection. And some may be best for mobility. And some may be best for recreation, while others may be best for newfangled flying sports. But within the totality of GoFly, we hope to see — and certainly we have designed the rules and guidelines to promote — innovation, which allows for a multitude of types of flyers.

Q: All right, thank you so much Gwen for these very complete and precise answers [laughter]. Anything else you’d like to say about the competition?

Gwen Lighter: I would say that GoFly truly believes innovations come from anyone, anywhere. One does not have to win a previous phase in order to compete. And frankly, one does not have to even have participated in the previous phase in order to join. So if there are any innovators among your readers who are interested in joining us, we would encourage them to reach out to us and to learn more about GoFly, as we are still accepting new teams!

Q: All right Gwen, many thanks for taking some time with me today.

Gwen Lighter: Absolutely. And thank you, I truly appreciate it.