Prepare for takeoff

Texas A&M team wins second round of Boeing-backed flight device competition

A team out of Texas A&M University is a finalist for Boeing's GoFly competition. Courtesy of GoFly

A team from Texas A&M University has advanced in a global Boeing-sponsored competition called GoFly. The competition asks teams to create a personal flying device aircraft that is smaller, lighter, and quieter than any currently existing model.

Texas A&M Harmony is one of the five teams named a winner in GoFly's Phase II competition, which has more than 3,500 innovators from 101 countries across the world. The teams are now preparing for the Final Fly-Off expected to take place in 2020, at which point innovators will put their aircrafts to the test, competing at a final event showcase and for the remaining $1.6 million in prizes.

Dr. Moble Benedict leads the team and is an assistant professor of aerospace engineering at TAMU and founder of the Advanced Vertical Flight Laboratory with 15 years of experience in vertical take-off and landing aircraft concepts. Texas A&M Harmony is the only team from Texas currently in the competition.

"The first time I heard about the GoFly competition, I thought 'this is impossible I can't do it,'" says Moble Benedict, Harmony's team captain and an assistant professor of aerospace engineering at TAMU.

Benedict, who also founded the Advanced Vertical Flight Laboratory with 15 years of experience in vertical take-off and landing aircraft concepts, proposed the competition to his students and his connections in the field to build his current team.

"The first few months we spent brainstorming different ideas," Benedict tells InnovationMap.

The team created a design called Aria, which was inspired by the word's musical roots.

"Being engineers, we were trying to stick with a theme," says Carl Runco, a PhD student at the Advanced Vertical Flight Lab of TAMU. "We struck on 'Aria,' and thought 'that's it' because Aria is the solo of an opera and we're designing a single-person vehicle."

Aria is a high technology readiness level compact rotorcraft designed to minimize noise and maximize efficiency, safety, reliability, and flight experience, according to the GoFly website.

"The key outcome of this design is the rotor system we have designed," says Benedict. "We have come up with a very unique rotor system which is very quiet without compromising the efficiency. That's something very hard to do."

In addition to Benedict and Runco, the Harmony team has a total of 12 members — from PhDs to professors, including:

  • David Coleman, a PhD student conducting research at AVFL (Advanced Vertical Flight Laboratory)
  • Hunter Denton, a Masters student in AVFL at TAMU
  • Dr. Eric Greenwood, who received a PhD in Aerospace Engineering from the University of Maryland and is a researcher at NASA Langley developing rotor noise modeling methods and experimental techniques
  • Atanu Halder, a PhD candidate in Aerospace Engineering at TAMU
  • Dr. Vikram Hrishikeshavan, an Assistant Research Scientist at the University of Maryland with 14 years of experience in VTOL aircraft concepts
  • Dr. Vinod Lakshminarayan, a Research Scientist at Science and Technology Corporation, NASA Ames Research Center
  • Bochan Lee, a South Korean Navy UH-60 pilot and a current graduate researcher at AVFL
  • Farid Saemi, a PhD student at TAMU
  • Vishaal Subramanian, a Masters student at the Aerospace department of TAMU
  • Aswathi Sudhir, a PhD student in Materials and Structures from Aerospace department of TAMU.

Winning the competition would put the Texas university on the map for aerospace engineering.

"The recognition would be invaluable," says Saemi.

The GoFly competition is broken up into three phases that began in 2017 according to the website. The first phase focused on written reports detailing each team's design and plan. After advancing through that round, Harmony entered Phase II, which included a re-review of Phase I materials and a demonstration of the progress each team has made. The five winners of Phase II will compete in a fly-off in 2020.

Other teams based in the United States include Trek Aerospace FK2 Inc. and DragonAir Aviation. International teams include Silverwing Personal Flight, from the Netherlands, and Aeroxo LV, from Latvia and Russia.

"We're inspired and excited to see the strong progress that GoFly competitors have made on their bold, creative designs," says Greg Hyslop, Boeing's CTO, in the press release. "Their work confirms a principle that's at the core of both Boeing and GoFly: aerospace innovation changes the world."

While the team is focused on next year's fly-off competition, they see the potential for a company taking off.

"If we're successful enough and attract enough attention, there is definitely interest in turning the team into an official company," says Runco. "We want to be able to sell these things."

Texas A&M Harmony has 12 team members and is advancing to the final round of the competition. Courtesy of GoFly

Paladin Drones wants eyes in the skies within 30 seconds of an emergency call. Getty Images

When 911 is called, first responders usually arrive at the scene around three or four minutes after the call's placed. But Houston-based Paladin Drones wants to have eyes on the ground ­— or eyes in the sky — within the first 30 seconds.

The company's mission is simple: to outfit public agencies and first-responders with drones that can be autonomously deployed to the site of an emergency. Equipped with thermal sensors and flying around 200 feet high, the drones can give police and firefighters near-instantaneous information on a situation underway.

At the beginning of April, Paladin Drones began working with the Memorial Villages Police Department to respond to incidents in Memorial Villages, Hunter's Creek, Piney Point Village, and Bunker Hill.

"(This is) one of the first departments in the country to be testing this technology," says Paladin Drones co-founder Divyaditya Shrivastava. "We're very limited in the area that we cover, and that's just because we're taking baby steps and going as carefully and deliberately as possible."

Paladin Drones was co-founded by Shrivastava and Trevor Pennypacker. In 2018, the company went through a three-month boot camp at Y Combinator, a California-based incubator that's churned out Dropbox, AirBNB, Instacart and more. Through Y Combinator, Paladin Drones was connected with venture capital investors in Houston.

The company's drones capture critical information, such as a vehicle's color and body type, a suspect's clothing, or the direction a suspect fled the scene. And since roughly 70 percent of 911 calls involve witnesses or passerby giving inaccurate information about the emergency's location, these drones will be able to pinpoint the exact location of an emergency, further aiding the arrival of first responders.

"We're working on tracking technology to give the drones the capability to auto-follow (suspects)," Shrivastava says.

Paladin Drones is looking to hire a handful of employees in the coming months, Shrivastava says. He declined to disclose any information on the company's funding plans, but said it's still involved with Y Combinator in California.

Shrivastava began developing Paladin Drones when he was finishing high school in Ohio. The summer before his senior year, a friend's house burned down. While nobody was injured in the fire, the home was destroyed, and Shrivastava spoke with the local firefighters. Tragically, the 911 call that alerted firefighters of the emergency was one of the 70 percent of calls that involved inaccurate location information.

"If they'd known the exact location, the house would've been saved," Shrivastava says. "A fire doubles every 30 seconds."