Over the past year, Texas A&M aerospace engineering graduate students and their professor have created a design and a small-scale prototype of a personal flying vehicle. Now, the only step left is to make the full-scale model.
The design is part of the GoFly challenge, sponsored by Boeing, with the idea to create a personal flying vehicle that can be stored in a garage like a car, take off vertically from a small area — like a backyard — and fly about 20 miles on one battery pack charge.
The team, named Texas A&M Harmony, entered the GoFly competition in early 2018 with their paper design. After being selected as one of the top 10 designs out of about 600 teams, they decided to keep going and create a one-third scale prototype of their Aria device. After testing it and proving the concept, Aria finished in the top five of Phase 2 of the GoFly competition, out of about 31 teams.
“We’re all very excited,” said Texas A&M aerospace engineering assistant professor and team lead Moble Benedict, who described the device as having two counter-rotating rotors on the bottom with the pilot sitting on the top. “I mean, we’re very happy that we got selected. It feels great to be selected in the top five teams across the world. If you look at it, we are the only university team from the entire United States.”
There is only one other university team in the top five, and they are from the Netherlands. The other three teams are start-up companies, he said, with two from the United States and one from Russia and Latvia.
One interesting aspect to the challenge, Benedict said, is that teams do not have to win a previous phase of the competition to advance. New teams can enter the competition at any phase.
So, just as it was not only the top 10 from Phase 1 competing in Phase 2, it will not be only the top five from Phase 2 competing in the final fly-off in 2020.
Before ever submitting its Phase 1 design, the team had to abide by strict size and sound requirements.
“It has to be less than the footprint of a sedan. Unlike a helicopter, it can’t be big because you want to store it in your garage, you want to take off from your backyard, so on,” Benedict said. “The other big constraint was on noise. It has to be quieter than 87 decibels. So, I mean, that’s a very, very hard constraint to meet.”
So difficult, in fact, Benedict said he thought it was impossible at first.
During the first few months, the team — made up of Benedict, eight A&M aerospace engineering graduate students and two NASA researchers — met twice a week for multiple hours a night just brainstorming designs and how to create an efficient electric battery. Benedict said he credits those sessions for the interesting and different design of Aria.
As they continued advancing and receiving top finishes in the first two phases, Benedict said, the Texas A&M Harmony team members took on the mentality of ‘why stop there?’
“Now we have to build everything much bigger, three times bigger. We have to have a very big battery pack, and we need to put this big battery pack together, and we have to make sure we’re getting the efficiency we have predicted from the rotors, from the motors and battery and so on,” Benedict said.
In addition to the technical challenges, he said, one of the biggest challenges is raising the necessary funds for the project, noting it is not funded by Boeing nor GoFly. He anticipates the project will cost a few hundred thousand dollars and would have cost more if it were not the team members doing the design work.
Benedict’s goal is to raise about $100,000 to add to the funds they already have accrued.
The final hurdle will be to get FAA approval for the full-size creation.
“To remotely pilot something close to 600, 700 pounds, getting the FAA approval to fly it at some decent altitude is also going to be a challenge,” he said.
After finishing among the top teams for paper design and small-scale prototype, he said, the team is “really motivated” to make the third phase happen and win the grand prize of $1 million.
“I really want to give a lot of credit to the grad students, because they worked really hard all day and night to kind of make this happen, even though this is not really their research project or their thesis or anything. This is something they have to do outside of their normal research activities,” Benedict said.
In addition to the grand prize, the GoFly Prize will have a $250,000 award for the quietest device and the smallest device and then a $100,000 Pratt & Whitney Disruptor Award.
The ultimate goal, Benedict said, is to commercialize their design and, with the rest of the team’s permission, use any winnings to work toward that goal.
It will take a few years, he said, to make personal flying vehicles an option because of the “rigorous flight testing” and certification processes required, but the goal is to make it affordable.
“I don’t know whether it’ll be as affordable as a car. I think it’s like any other technology; when people developed the first car, maybe it was very expensive. With time, with increased demand and so on, the manufacturing techniques and so on, they can mass produce. It’ll eventually get cheaper, I think, but again, an aerospace product can only get that cheap,” he said.
There are also higher stakes with flying devices than cars, he noted.
“You drive on a highway, your car can break down, that’s fine. When you’re flying, you don’t want that to happen,” he said with a laugh. “You can get a flat, and you’re still fine. You don’t want your blades or propeller to break or something. That’s the reason. These flying things have to be extremely reliable, and the price could go up and that could be expensive. That’s the goal. That’s the goal with time.”
In an interview with GoFly, Texas A&M Harmony team member and A&M aerospace engineering graduate students Farid Saemi said, he can see personal flying devices having practical uses in both the military and civilian spheres.
“However, I’m most interested in the pure joy aspect of personal flight,” he said. “Can you imagine flying through someplace like the Grand Canyon in Arizona or the Simien Mountains in Ethiopia?
The Harmony team is working on creating a Facebook page and a website. Current websites with information on Texas A&M Harmony and their Aria device are available at http://evtol.news/hover-bikes/texas-am-university-harmony, http://goflyprize.com/the-winners, https://transportup.com/texas-am-university-harmony.