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The $2 million GoFly Prize for personal flying devices aims to make a splash. (GoFly via YouTube)

For decades, if not centuries, people have been dreaming about flying free like a bird — and now there’s a $2 million contest to bring that dream closer to reality, made possible with a boost from Boeing.

Over the next two years, the GoFly Prize program aims to provide incentives for teams to develop one-person flying devices that are capable of making vertical or near-vertical takeoffs and taking 20-mile aerial trips — without refueling or recharging.

“Two years from now, we will be able to look to the sky and say, ‘Look at that person flying,'” GoFly CEO Gwen Lighter told GeekWire. Lighter, an entrepreneur based in Connecticut, has been working with NASA and other organizations for years to get GoFly off the ground.

The program was unveiled today at the SAE 2017 AeroTech Congress and Exposition in Fort Worth, Texas, kicking off a months-long registration period.

The Boeing Co. is the competition’s grand sponsor. Other backers include the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association and AHS International.

In a statement, Boeing’s chief technology officer, Greg Hyslop, said the competition “aligns with our company’s goals of inspiring people across the globe and changing the world through aerospace innovation.”

The process for the competition, coordinated through the HeroX online platform for tech challenges, calls for doling out the prize money in three phases.

The first phase will award 10 prizes of $20,000 each in mid-2018, based on written technical specifications. Phase II sets aside four $50,000 prizes for the best prototypes and revised materials from Phase I. Those prizes will be given out in March 2019.

Phase III comes to its climax with a fly-off in the fall of 2019. The $1 million grand prize will be awarded based on an overall score that considers speed, noise and size. Other prizes, ranging from $100,000 to $250,000, will recognize the most disruptive technology, the quietest device that satisfies the contest’s rules, and the smallest flying machine.

Entries will be judged by a panel of aviation experts from Boeing and other organizations. (Check the official rules for details.)

Teams will be able to draw upon expertise from GoFly’s advisers as they work on their flying machines, but the contest’s organizers shy away from specifying exactly what kind of flying machine should be built.

“Will it be a jetpack, a personal drone, even a motorcycle in the sky? It’s up to you to decide, and bring it to life,” Hyslop said in a video introducing the competition.

Lots of personal flying machines have emerged over the years, ranging from the Martin Jetpack in New Zealand to the Ehang 184 super-drone in China to the Kitty Hawk Flyer in California. However, Lighter said none of those machines would qualify for the prize.

“There’s nothing out there that currently meets our threshold,” she told GeekWire.

Hyslop said he expected the entries to take advantage of recent advances in materials, propulsion and autonomy. Each team will retain the rights to its intellectual property — and will be free to commercialize whatever they come up with.

“At the end of the contest, we could see mini-Fords and mini-Chryslers as they were at the start of the automotive industry, except in this case they would be at the start of the personal flying industry,” Lighter said.

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