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One of these 10 flying cars might be your future ride

The GoFly challenge has just announced 10 winning flying-car designs. It’s the first phase of a three-part contest, and they’re very cool.

Care for a lift?
Care for a lift? (Credit: Marcello Brivio/Big Think)

Remember the future? That was that time when each of us would navigate our own personal aircraft through three-dimensional lanes of commuter traffic. It’s a dream that goes way, way back: In November 1933, when Eugene Vidal (Gore’s father) was working for Franklin Roosevelt’s Commerce Department, he proposed awarding $1 million to anyone who could invent a flying car, a $700 “poor man’s airplane.” No one could. It seemed plausible, but the technology just wasn’t there. Still, it was a dream many of us have shared, prompted by sci-fi and having watched rocket packs shudder upward and away while lusting after something more akin to K’s sleek spinner in Blade Runner 2049. Like many of us, Gwen Lighter, the CEO and founder of the GoFly competition, has been fascinated with flight and its pioneers since childhood.


So, I continued to read about hero innovators and their breakthrough technologies, and I began focusing on recent advances in control and stability systems, propulsion, lightweight materials, energy, and rapid prototyping. I realized that the convergence of these breakthrough technologies would open up innovation to engineers around the globe. That was when I knew that we had reached the technological moment when we had the ability to make that childhood dream of personal flight a reality. That was the moment that GoFly was born.

She’s referring to the GoFly Challenge, a three-phase competition sponsored by Boeing meant to spur—at long last—the development of our flying cars, or flying bikes. Whatever, we’re not choosy. Never mind for the moment the climate imperative of transitioning away from private vehicles and toward more environmentally benign mass transit solutions. Never mind moving road rage into mid-air. This is the long-promised future of our past beckoning, and there’s undeniably cool science involved.

The GoFly organization includes a number of aviation experts on hand to mentor and assist design teams throughout the competition. In addition, with entry into the contest comes certain benefits, including—let’s face it, they need it—insurance.

The shape of the contest

The goal of the GoFly challenge is to design and ultimately deploy a vehicle that meets certain requirements. It must be:

  • safe
  • quiet
  • ultra-compact
  • be a near-vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) device
  • be capable of flying 20 miles while carrying a single person.

The contest is structured into three distinct phases, with prizes awarded at each level.

Phase I

Up to ten $20,000 prizes awarded based on a written report. These are the winners recently announced.

Phase II

Up to four $50,000 prizes awarded based on revised Phase I material (or for new teams new Phase I material) and demonstrated performance of progress to date.

Phase III, AKA “The Fly-off”

This is when the vehicles actually take to the sky, with four prizes awarded:

  • One $1,000,000 Grand Prize awarded for the best compliant overall fly-off score.
  • One $250,000 prize for the quietest compliant entry.
  • One $250,000 prize for the smallest compliant entry.
  • One $100,000 prize for disruptive advancement of the state of the art.

The GoFly first-round winners and their flying cars

Here they are in alphabetical order by design team, along with their nation of origin.

Team’s description: ERA Aviabike is a tilt rotor aerial vehicle type that combines VTOL capabilities of helicopter with range and speed of fixed-wing aircraft.

From: Latvia

Team’s description: Students and faculty at Penn State University Aerospace Engineering designed Blue Sparrow to be scalable, robust, safe, and fun to fly.

From: United States

Team’s description: HummingBuzz utilizes the fully electric, ducted coaxial rotor configuration, with the fuselage on top, in the shape of a motorcycle.

From: United States

Team’s description: Vantage is a five-rotor airbike.

From: United Kingdom

Team’s description: The Mamba is a hexcopter emphasizing safety, certifiability, and performance. Shrouded rotors and a tilting empennage are incorporated.

From: United States

Team’s description: The Pegasus is a Y6 tilt rotor with a wing and a hybrid powertrain with a cruise speed of 70 knots.

From: United States

Team’s description: This device is a canard-wing configuration around a person in motorcycle-like orientation powered by two electric motors with ducted rotors. The aircraft makes a 90 degree transition from vertical take-off to horizontal cruise flight.

From: Netherlands

Team’s description: teTra 3 is not only efficient enough, but also stylish enough to meet commercial requirements.

From: Japan

Team’s description: Harmony is a high-TRL compact rotorcraft designed to minimize noise and maximize efficiency, safety, reliability, and flight experience.

From: United States

Team’s description: FlyKart 2 is a single-seat, open-cockpit, 10-rotor, ducted fan, electrically-powered, VTOL aircraft.

From: United States

Getting off the ground

These designs show an exhilarating degree of ingenuity, smarts, and energy. There are some amazingly out-of-the-box ideas here. Of course, Phase I is just the opening round. We can’t wait to see what comes next.

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When it comes to weird behavior, there's nothing quite like the quantum world. On top of that world-class head scratcher entanglement, there's also quantum tunneling — the mysterious process in which particles somehow find their way through what should be impenetrable barriers.

Exactly why or even how quantum tunneling happens is unknown: Do particles just pop over to the other side instantaneously in the same way entangled particles interact? Or do they progressively tunnel through? Previous research has been conflicting.

That quantum tunneling occurs has not been a matter of debate since it was discovered in the 1920s. When IBM famously wrote their name on a nickel substrate using 35 xenon atoms, they used a scanning tunneling microscope to see what they were doing. And tunnel diodes are fast-switching semiconductors that derive their negative resistance from quantum tunneling.

Nonetheless, "Quantum tunneling is one of the most puzzling of quantum phenomena," says Aephraim Steinberg of the Quantum Information Science Program at Canadian Institute for Advanced Research in Toronto to Live Science. Speaking with Scientific American he explains, "It's as though the particle dug a tunnel under the hill and appeared on the other."

Steinberg is a co-author of a study just published in the journal Nature that presents a series of clever experiments that allowed researchers to measure the amount of time it takes tunneling particles to find their way through a barrier. "And it is fantastic that we're now able to actually study it in this way."

Frozen rubidium atoms

Image source: Viktoriia Debopre/Shutterstock/Big Think

One of the difficulties in ascertaining the time it takes for tunneling to occur is knowing precisely when it's begun and when it's finished. The authors of the new study solved this by devising a system based on particles' precession.

Subatomic particles all have magnetic qualities, and they spin, or "precess," like a top when they encounter an external magnetic field. With this in mind, the authors of the study decided to construct a barrier with a magnetic field, causing any particles passing through it to precess as they did so. They wouldn't precess before entering the field or after, so by observing and timing the duration of the particles' precession, the researchers could definitively identify the length of time it took them to tunnel through the barrier.

To construct their barrier, the scientists cooled about 8,000 rubidium atoms to a billionth of a degree above absolute zero. In this state, they form a Bose-Einstein condensate, AKA the fifth-known form of matter. When in this state, atoms slow down and can be clumped together rather than flying around independently at high speeds. (We've written before about a Bose-Einstein experiment in space.)

Using a laser, the researchers pusehd about 2,000 rubidium atoms together in a barrier about 1.3 micrometers thick, endowing it with a pseudo-magnetic field. Compared to a single rubidium atom, this is a very thick wall, comparable to a half a mile deep if you yourself were a foot thick.

With the wall prepared, a second laser nudged individual rubidium atoms toward it. Most of the atoms simply bounced off the barrier, but about 3% of them went right through as hoped. Precise measurement of their precession produced the result: It took them 0.61 milliseconds to get through.

Reactions to the study

Scientists not involved in the research find its results compelling.

"This is a beautiful experiment," according to Igor Litvinyuk of Griffith University in Australia. "Just to do it is a heroic effort." Drew Alton of Augustana University, in South Dakota tells Live Science, "The experiment is a breathtaking technical achievement."

What makes the researchers' results so exceptional is their unambiguity. Says Chad Orzel at Union College in New York, "Their experiment is ingeniously constructed to make it difficult to interpret as anything other than what they say." He calls the research, "one of the best examples you'll see of a thought experiment made real." Litvinyuk agrees: "I see no holes in this."

As for the researchers themselves, enhancements to their experimental apparatus are underway to help them learn more. "We're working on a new measurement where we make the barrier thicker," Steinberg said. In addition, there's also the interesting question of whether or not that 0.61-millisecond trip occurs at a steady rate: "It will be very interesting to see if the atoms' speed is constant or not."

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