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GoAERO Launches $2M+ VTOL Challenge

Updated: Apr 15

Competition to demonstrate autonomous flyers to save lives with Aerial Emergency Response Operations

By Kenneth I. Swartz

Imagine a day in the not-too-distant future when autonomous, single-occupancy emergency response aircraft with life-saving aerial capability share the skies with helicopters and drones responding to medical emergencies, natural disasters and other critical response missions.

To jump-start development and deployment of such lifesaving aerial capabilities, the GoAERO Prize competition was launched at the Vertical Flight Society’s Transformative Vertical Flight (TVF 2024) meeting in Santa Clara, California, on Feb. 6, 2024 (see “TVF 2024 Reaches New Heights,” Vertiflite, March/April 2024).

The competition is the brainchild of GoAERO CEO and founder Gwen Lighter with the AERO acronym standing for “Aerial Emergency Response Operations.”

VFS and more than two dozen other organizations signed up as GoAERO partners prior to the launch.

VFS members will recall that Lighter launched the GoFly Prize competition that engaged more than 3,600 innovators from 103 countries to develop small vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) aircraft; although the GoFly competition was derailed in 2020 by the COVID-19 pandemic, it was a galvanizing event that created incredible innovation and excitement about vertical flight (see “GoFly Inspires Innovation,” Vertiflite, May/June 2020). GoFly was supported by scores of VFS members who volunteered as advisors, mentors or judges, or participated as competitors on numerous teams.

“GoAERO is a three-year global competition with over $2M in prizes to build emergency response flyers that will rescue people and perform critical response missions,” Lighter said. “We are catalyzing the creation of safe, portable, robust, autonomy-enabled flyers that respond to challenges posed by natural disasters, climate change, medical emergencies and humanitarian crises.”

In a series of presentations and meetings at TVF 2024, Lighter, along with Dr. Sky Sartorius of The Boeing Company, provided attendees with details of the GoAERO mission, as well as the specific competition requirements.

Humanitarian Mission

Lighter said that the combination of millions of people living in areas without access to timely emergency medical services — as well as the increased occurrence of natural disasters, climate change and humanitarian crises — has created an “imperative to give first responders the tools that they need to save lives.”

For example, GoAero states, “In the US alone, nearly 4.5 million people live in ‘ambulance deserts.’ In a medical crisis, people in these areas have to wait as long as 25 minutes or more for an emergency medical crew to arrive.”

She also noted that “in 2022, there were more than 380 natural disasters worldwide — affecting 185 million people and resulting in the loss of over 30,000 lives.”

In addition, “extreme weather and climate events in the past half-century have caused economic damage of about $4.3T.”

Industry-Wide Support

Prior to launching the competition, Lighter said that her team had hundreds of discussions with an array of emergency response experts “who informed the missions, because the goal is to create these emergency response flyers that have real-world impact.”

GoAERO sponsors and supporters include NASA, Boeing, Global Aerospace, Iridium Satellite Communications, RTX (the parent of Collins Aerospace, Pratt & Whitney and Raytheon) and Xwing.

Outreach by the GoAERO organization has also resulted in an array of partnerships with international aerospace organizations like VFS, American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA), Association for Uncrewed Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), SAE International, the Royal Aeronautical Society and many others across the globe, as well as organizations representing various medical, air medical, firefighting and emergency response organizations.

GoAero believes these partnerships will help build worldwide awareness and participation in the upcoming competition.

Lighter told Vertiflite that GoAERO also wants to recruit a broad team of mentors across many disciplines who can provide guidance, direction and support to the many expected teams.

Three-Stage Competition

GoAERO is a three-stage competition that will culminate in a fly-off competition at a yet-to-be determined location in three years. The organizers emphasized at TVF 2024 that the GoAERO teams do not need to win a previous stage to participate in the next stage of the competition. 

GoAERO is leaving it up to each team to determine the size, configuration, propulsion approach and autonomy systems used for their flyer design. However, many aspects of the fly-off competition will have endurance, terrain and obstacle challenges that will influence the overall VTOL aircraft design.

Stage 1, requiring digital submission of a team’s approach and design, will take place in October 2024 and will see 10 prizes of $10,000 each awarded.

Stage 2 will occur in June 2026 and will see eight prizes of $40,000 each awarded for the development of a full- or sub-scale flyer.

Stage 3 is the fly-off competition, which will take place in the first quarter of 2027 and include five different prize categories totaling at least $1.7M in prize money. This includes a $750,000 top prize and five $150,000 mission prizes, as well as a $100,000 Autonomy Prize and a $100,000 RTX Disruptor Prize.

Diving into the details at TVF 2024, Sartorius described the fly-off as a “five-mission kind of pentathlon,” with each mission focused on productivity, adversity, maneuvering, precision and adaptation.

“The idea behind these missions — and they don't need to be flown in any order [since] they're relatively decoupled — is they should be challenging, but relatively doable.”

He said the biggest challenge will come from the spirit of competition, where teams will try to “out innovate each other and outperform each other… with better strategies and tactics.”

The flyers are conceived as single-occupant vehicles that will need to accommodate a generic payload called “Alex,” a 5-foot, 5-inch (165-cm) tall manikin weighing 120 pounds (54.4 kg). Just how Alex will be accommodated in the flyer is open to the design team, since “we're not saying anything about Alex being ambulatory or not ambulatory, passive or active occupant,” said Sartorius.

A key design requirement is that the entire system, including the flyer, operating crew and ground station, must be deployable by road on a highway-legal vehicle to a launch site and be capable of being rapidly deployed after arrival.

The Productivity mission comprises two parts, with the first part being a timed deployment of the flyer at the launch site, followed by a series of flights continuously ferrying payload around a predetermined course.

The Adversity mission will require the flyer to take off and land in difficult conditions that include a sandy environment, sloping terrain, a water surface, in rain and against non-uniform winds.

The Maneuvering mission will require the flyer to tightly maneuver around a course while avoiding obstacles on the ground.

The Precision mission will require the flyer to perform five fine tasks requiring skills beyond course flight path control, which include tossing a payload through a hole in a wall, popping balloons above and below the water, and similar challenges.

The Adaptation mission will test the on-the-fly decision-making and efficient flight path execution of the flyer with the optimum flight path not known until the “starting gun goes off.” The VTOL flyer will have to fly around some obstacles, as well as high or low over other markers.

Sartorius said that there are defined criteria for each of these missions that will result in the award of points. The scoring will accommodate minor mistakes, as well as teams making a “tactical or strategic decision to specifically omit something from the mission… if you feel that gives you an advantage somewhere else.”

For further details on how to participate in GoAero as a competitor or mentor, go to


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