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Prizing success in aerospace innovation

Cash rewards help fire the competitive spirit that leads to scientific advances

By Darryll Pines

12:37 PM EDT, April 17, 2013

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The future economic growth and competitiveness of the United States depends on our capacity to innovate. Many ideas have emerged from government, industry and academia regarding how best to inspire and support innovation. But nothing spurs creativity and innovation more than a combination of incentive and challenge: a reward for achievement, combined with the urgency of a dare to succeed and the reality that we must race against others. We are at our best when we compete.

This is why I believe that prizes and competitions are crucial to create a climate of innovation and entrepreneurship, and for driving new advances in targeted areas. At the University of Maryland, I have personally seen the positive impact that competing for external prizes has had on the development of our students. In 2012, our Gamera student team set the world record for the longest human-powered helicopter flight. The $250,000 American Helicopter Society's Sikorsky Prize has fueled the team's drive for success.

The aerospace industry presents a compelling case study of the considerable impact that prizes and competitions can have. Innovation in aerospace has historically kept the U.S. at the forefront of technology advances and helped create new industries, such as the commercial transport of people and cargo, unmanned aerial systems for civilian and military missions, and, more recently, commercial space travel.

A key catalyst for these advances has been the establishment of aerospace prizes and competitions to accelerate invention, ingenuity and investment. When competitions and prizes are properly posed, they can inspire creativity, invention, and entrepreneurship; leverage external financial investment that is typically 5 to 10 times the prize value; bring diverse groups of people together to solve a single problem; accelerate technology advances; and launch new industries, boosting job creation and economic development.

The Orteig Prize, established in 1919 by hotel owner Raymond Orteig, offered $25,000 for the first nonstop aircraft flight between New York and Paris. On May 21, 1927, Charles Lindbergh completed the first solo transatlantic flight in history in 33 hours and 30 minutes; aircraft industry stocks rose in value and interest in flying skyrocketed. Lindbergh's subsequent tour in the "Spirit of St. Louis" demonstrated that the airplane was a safe, reliable mode of transportation. That year, applications for pilot licenses in the U.S. tripled and the number of licensed aircraft quadrupled.

Years later, a community of aviation enthusiasts sought to realize the human-powered flight dreams of Leonardo da Vinci. British industrialist Henry Kremer established the Kremer Prize in 1959 to accelerate advances in human powered flight. The prize value was originally 5,000 British pounds and later increased to 50,000 pounds.

Paul MacCready and his team won the first Kremer Prize for flying a figure eight in 1977 with his Gossamer Condor aircraft, flown by cyclist Bryan Allen. MacCready's team won a second Kremer Prize in 1979 by crossing the English Channel in 2 hours, 49 minutes in their Gossamer Albatross.

In 1988, another group led by John Langford of MIT pushed human powered-flight further. The team's Daedalus vehicle flew 71.5 miles in less than four hours, the world records for distance and duration for human-powered aircraft.

Advances associated with these human-powered flights led to the emergence of high-altitude, long-endurance, unmanned aerial vehicles such as Aurora Flight Sciences and AeroVironment. Today, these two aerospace firms employ approximately 1,000 people.

The X Prize, first proposed by Peter Diamandis in 1995, was designed to demonstrate that a private vehicle could be flown to the edge of space, to show spaceflight could be affordable and accessible to civilians, opening the door to commercial space tourism.

The $10 million prize, later renamed the Ansari X Prize, was awarded in 2004 to aerospace pioneer Burt Rutan and Microsoft co¿founder Paul Allen, and their space plane SpaceShipOne.

Subsequently, a number of commercial space companies emerged to support the demand for launch services, satellite development, space science and education, and space tourism. Commercial space transportation boosted economic activity, employee earnings, and job growth in the aerospace industry.

Back at the University of Maryland, our Gamera team, fresh off last year's success, is now involved in an exciting "international aerospace race" with Canada's AeroVelo team to see who can capture the 32-year-old prize first. No matter who wins the prize, the journey will be worth the investment of time and resources to inspire the next generation of innovators to push science and engineering to its limits.

Competing brings out the best in us. If our goal is to truly inspire and support innovation, we should work together to create more high-value prizes in areas where this work is needed most urgently.

Darryll J. Pines is dean and Nariman Farvardin Professor of Aerospace Engineering at the Clark School of Engineering at the University of Maryland. At UM, he has emphasized the importance of helping students achieve success in national and international student competitions. His email is darryll.pines@gmail.com.

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