A vision of the future often involves replacing cumbersome, slow cars with personal flying machines that let us quickly fly to work and on errands. That vision was the inspiration behind air giant Boeing’s latest $2 million GoFly competition, which launched in 2017 to attract students, would-be entrepreneurs, and innovators.
After the first phase of the contest, 10 winners were chosen from a pool of 750 entries worldwide.
Georgia Tech student Alistair Sequeira, along with advisor Dr. Daniel Schrage, led one of those chosen teams. Along with three other students, they developed the concept for HumBuzz, and were awarded $20,000 to move onto Phase 2 of bringing the design to life.
“The goal of the competition was to make a personal flying machine for commuting purposes in the future and make urban air mobility a viable option,” says Sequeira, who is currently a junior at Georgia Tech. Other contest requirements included a design smaller than 8.5 feet, quieter than 87 decibels, and the capability to fly at least 30 miles per hour.
The HummingBuzz is an electric personal flying vehicle that can fly for an average of 30 minutes at 60 miles per hour. The machine is about the size of a regular parking space at 6.5 feet in diameter, and produces very little noise.
For perspective, a single-person helicopter is about 20-30 feet in diameter.
While Sequeira had an interest in aerospace engineering, he had no formal background in the mechanics of it. Dr. Schrage, the team advisor, suggested the student audit a helicopter design class to learn the basic concepts.
Sequeira quickly picked it up, and has continued taking classes up to the graduate level in order to move forward with the Boeing project.
Sequeira and Dr. Schrage have now built a second team, this time comprised of eight students, for Phase 2, as the others working during Phase 1 have graduated. The new team is all comprised of Master and Doctorate students with backgrounds in aerospace engineering, with the exception of undergraduate Sequeira.
They just finished Phase 2 of the competition by building one full-scale prototype and three smaller prototypes within four months.
The full-scale prototype was built with a Triumph Group-sponsored carbon fiber airframe, powered by an electric power system from planes, and drone batteries. They’re still building a piloted version, but they hope to have the single-rider experience, which will hold one person plus a load of up to 200 pounds, ready to go by the next phase.
To test the prototype’s safety, the HumBuzz team reached out to the Georgia Tech Structural Engineering and Materials Laboratory to use their indoor test facility. The HummingBuzz pilot remained behind bulletproof glass for safety while they tested all of the components. By bringing the testing indoors, they hoped to save time before going through the FAA certification process.
Sequeira says that testing showed that the HummingBuzz has 30 percent more payload capacity and can fly 30 percent longer than a helicopter. He plans to improve that even more, aiming for about a 50 percent efficiency increase when compared to a same-size helicopter.
The team is preparing for the Boing contest finals, which take place in the first quarter of 2020, but they’re also using the competition as a launchpad for a true startup company, refining their business model and go-to-market.
“We are going to initially enter the high payload capacity drone market, and then get into the personal flying machine market as FAA regulations catch up,” says Sequeira.
HumBuzz has identified specific industries they want to tackle in the drone market: first, agriculture, which is one of Georgia’s biggest industries.
The current drone offering for pesticides and frost protection can carry 22 pounds of payload for 10 minutes. For the same cost, the HummingBuzz can carry 75 pounds for 20 minutes.
Sequeira also sees use cases in search and rescue operations, disaster relief, construction, fire departments and public safety, and more.
They will offer a gas-powered version first to get to market quicker, as the electric power technology is not as developed. The plan is to eventually transition to electric.
Beyond testing their competition prototype, HumBuzz is working on receiving their FAA certification to begin a pilot with a local blueberry farm and test new features.
As for the flying machine dreams? Sequeira has big plans for this technology, with hopes for flying ambulances, taxis, and commuter vehicles within the next five to ten years.