Gwen Lighter launched GoFly, a $2 million international flying device competition, in 2017. These five creations won the prototype phase.
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For Gwen Lighter, it all started in the “spaceship tree.”
Dubbed as such by Lighter and her sister, who dreamt of sailing out of it and onward through the New York skies, the gnarled crabapple tree furnished a larger purpose for many front yard afternoons. The young girls spent days on end constructing flying machines with any material they could get their hands on: bed sheets, scotch tape, cardboard from their father’s dry-cleaned shirts. The two donned makeshift Wonder Woman bracelets fashioned from tin foil and launched out of the tree in their creations, hoping this time — or this time, or this time — their flying dreams would come true.
Decades later, Lighter would go on to launch GoFly, a $2 million international competition for the creation of personal flying devices. It officially launched on Sept. 26, 2017, and currently supports 3,600 innovators from 103 countries, all working on various permutations of “jetpacks.”
Lighter, who attended law school and started a number of businesses before GoFly, has always kept her ear to the ground for news of flight innovations. Once she began to read about the convergence of breakthrough technologies — electric cars, drones, new composite materials, 3D printing and other types of rapid prototyping — she knew that things had shifted, irreversibly, toward the advent of personal flying devices.
“When you put all of these things together, it’s actually the first moment in time where we have the ability to make people fly in the manner of our childhood dreams — in the manner of the way my sister and I would throw ourselves out of trees,” Lighter said in an interview with Entrepreneur. Her bright green eyes light up when she speaks about the burgeoning industry, and in her frazzled but energetic manner of speaking, her consecutive sentences are like connecting spark plugs. “[It’s] much more sophisticated, and better and safer, but … we can now do it. And we couldn’t do it five years ago.”
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Lighter got to work reaching out to individuals and organizations in the transformative aviation industry with one question: “We want to make people fly. We think the best way to do this is to have a global competition. How do we make this happen?” While consulting with experts on propulsion, noise mitigation, aerospace and more, Lighter and her team spent over a year developing the competition’s technical rules and guidelines. They spread the word via universities, news organizations and industry groups around the world.
GoFly doesn’t make money on its own (it has a set budget from corporate sponsors including Boeing), and its three phases — paper, prototype and the final fly off — each involve prize money, mentorship and participants’ retaining their own intellectual property. Teams don’t need to win one phase in order to advance to the next, and GoFly still accepts new team applications on a rolling basis.
Lighter’s ideal future for the competition? That it will continue and break existing confines in traffic, sports, package delivery and even natural disaster response. “GoFlyers could be brought in to get to areas where there’s no existing infrastructure — because it’s all been wiped out — to be the first responders,” she said.
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As far as environmental impact, Lighter said the aviation industry will likely follow the same trajectory as the automobile one — traditional devices followed by hybrids and then, eventually, robust electric options. “For our GoFly devices, we always say what it looks like and how it works is up to you,” she said.
GoFly’s prototype phase wrapped up in April. Here’s a look at the five winning devices.