Fixing the world’s issues, one prize at a time

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Media captionWatch: The flight of the Albatross. (BBC Nationwide , 1979)

If you’re trying to find an answer do you ask the consultants or the gang? Problem prizes take innovation exterior the analysis institution – and they’re getting extra in style.

On 12 June 1979, a scraggly Californian health buff, Bryan Allen, discovered himself hovering a foot or so above the English Channel in a field wrapped in polyester movie, pedalling frantically.

He was competing to turn into the primary individual to fly below his personal energy the world over’s busiest transport lane.

His plane, the Gossamer Albatross, might have been held collectively by tape, however it was a extremely engineered contraption. The body was product of carbon fibre and regardless of the wingspan of virtually 30m (100ft), it weighed simply 32kg – half the pilot’s weight.

To steer, Allen turned a knob in his cabin which twisted the wings – an thought borrowed from the Wright brothers. This allowed him to manoeuvre the aircraft with out it banking and crashing into the waves.

“Out in the midst of the Channel, there have been occasions I used to be above the floor of the water solely by three inches or so,” Allen recollects.

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Donald Monroe

Regardless of pedalling right into a headwind, operating out of water and struggling leg cramps, he managed to finish the 22-mile crossing from Folkestone to Cap Gris-Nez, successful a prize of £100,000 for his group of collaborators, led by engineer Paul MacCready.

The cash had been put up by the businessman Henry Kremer, who was – I believe – my grandfather’s first cousin.

Problem prizes fluctuate of their particulars, however the fundamental thought stays the identical: as an alternative of paying consultants a wage to do analysis and growth, you supply a prize to the primary individual or group to cross a check.

Improvements which have come about partly on account of this mannequin embrace the tin can, steam locomotion and ships’ propellers. The recognition of problem prizes peaked within the 18th and early 19th Centuries however there was renewed curiosity in the previous couple of a long time.

“The advantage of having a prize mannequin is you place up a handbag, however you are not asking folks to make use of a specific answer set on find out how to remedy that drawback,” says Marcus Shingles, CEO of the XPRIZE Basis, which organises problem prizes at the moment.

“So that you get this great quantity of range. If we launch an XPRIZE and it is simply the ‘consultants’ that come out and compete, they’re normally those that may inform us it could’t be finished.”

Problem prizes work notably nicely when the trail in the direction of an answer is unclear, since they permit organisations to check many approaches on the identical time.

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John Harrison gained greater than £23,000 between 1737 and 1773 for designing correct “timekeepers” that might be used to calculate a ship’s longitude

They will additionally direct consideration to points which were ignored by the market, or which supply an unsure return. “However on the identical time you do not need to be making a problem prize which incentivises folks to resolve an issue the place there is no such thing as a demand,” says Tris Dyson, government director of problem prizes at Nesta, a UK-based innovation basis.

In addition to well-publicised prizes staged by XPRIZE and Nesta, non-public corporations reminiscent of Amazon and Netflix now set technical challenges, and plenty of web sites specialize in connecting issues that must be solved with solvers fascinated by a money reward.

Cliff Edwards, who describes himself as an “open innovation solver”, earns his dwelling by submitting concepts to a web site known as InnoCentive, the place he’s ranked essentially the most profitable solver. Figuring out of espresso outlets in Vancouver, Edwards has pitched concepts for every little thing from market methods to utilise 5G bandwidth to methods to reassemble somebody’s cranium after mind surgical procedure.

Discover out extra

  • Take heed to William Kremer’s report on Downside-solving prizes for World Hacks, on the BBC World Service – click on right here for transmission occasions or to hear on-line
  • Obtain the World Hacks podcast, Folks Fixing the World

Fairly often, he has no thought who has set the problem – the so-called “seeker”. And he says he has no qualms about signing over the rights to make use of concepts that might doubtlessly make him some huge cash. He is happy with the prize.

“I do have expertise with the patent course of and there are important limitations – primarily value,” he says. “It is simply so onerous. It is not simply the submission course of itself, it is the potential challenges to the patent. Patents require upkeep charges on an ongoing foundation to maintain them alive.”

The actually large problem prizes supply the possibility to attract funding into a brand new or ignored area, by way of sheer glamour and buzz.

A century in the past, the hotelier Raymond Orteig turned annoyed at how lengthy it took to journey between his native nation, France, and his adopted dwelling, the US. So in 1919 he put up a prize of $25,000 for the primary pilot from an Allied nation to fly between Paris and New York in both course.

The competition coincided with the delivery of mass communications and obtained enormous publicity. Six males died making an attempt the perilous journey. When the prize was lastly scooped by Charles Lindbergh in 1927 together with his flight on the Spirit of St Louis he turned some of the well-known males on this planet.

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Charles Lindbergh was greeted by cheering crowds in every single place he went after he turned the primary man to fly from the US to France

Extra importantly, the complete US aviation business obtained a lift. In 1927 alone, the variety of licensed plane within the US quadrupled. US air passengers elevated 30-fold in three years, and functions for pilots’ licenses tripled.

This was precisely the influence the founders of the XPRIZE hoped to copy in 1996 after they put up a prize of $10m for the primary reusable spacecraft to enter area twice in a fortnight.

They usually succeeded.

The overall funding of all 26 groups that competed within the Ansari XPRIZE was about $100m, 10 occasions the prize purse. And in 2004, the competitors did produce a winner – Tier One, which led to the creation of Virgin Galactic. It appeared like a brand new business – business area flight – had carry off.

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The White Knight takes off to launch SpaceShipOne on its second flight in every week to win the Ansari XPRIZE, in 2004

Fourteen years on, lots of of individuals have reserved a seat on Virgin Galactic, however the firm has solely simply restarted rocket assessments on their spacecraft, following a crash in 2014 that killed a pilot. Successful a prize doesn’t in itself change the world.

“Burt Rutan and his group have been in a position to win the XPRIZE, however simply barely – it was actually tough and it was actually harmful,” says Bryan Allen, who now works for Nasa’s jet propulsion laboratory.

“So there is a large distinction between constructing a craft single courageous individual can take as much as the sting of area, versus having passengers present up with a ticket.

“That is the issue – making an attempt to make the aircraft so it is not proper on the sting of falling aside. With the Gossamer Albatross, it was at all times proper on the sting of falling aside.”

Picture copyright
Donald Monroe

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Testing the Gossamer Albatross in Shafter, California in 1978

However whereas the Kremer Prizes didn’t result in the adoption of human-powered flight as a preferred type of journey or recreation, they did spur innovation.

Paul MacCready’s experiments in low-speed flight fed into the event of solar-powered planes. Fb and Airbus are each at present experimenting with high-altitude “pseudo-satellites” able to transmitting broadband to distant areas of the world, whose lineage may be traced again to the Gossamer Albatross.

Many years on, some Kremer prizes stay unclaimed, and some devoted souls understand it nicely.

In a big workshop in Tisbury, Wiltshire, I took a take a look at the Aerocycle three. John Edgley’s human-powered machine seems to be at first look like a deckchair that has been lashed to a bicycle, however it’s the product of a few years of analysis. Its carbon-fibre tubing is lower than a millimetre thick.

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John Edgly

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John Edgley hopes to scoop the Kremer Sport Prize

Edgley believes that human-powered flight might but turn into a sport, so he has set his sights on the Kremer Sport prize, which assessments how straightforward an plane is to arrange and dismantle.

He says the £100,000 prize is “comparable” to the sums he has spent pursuing his dream over time.

The Royal Aeronautical Society oversees Henry Kremer’s purse. Since 2012, the curiosity from the undisbursed prizes has been used to fund the annual Icarus Cup, which units human-powered flight fanatics extra achievable objectives for a prize of £1,000.

“It’s totally fascinating, however about three or 4 years in the past, we stated, ‘It is not a contest this yr, it is a rally – simply to have everybody coming and having enjoyable and flying their aeroplanes,” says Edgley.

“I reasonably favoured it – however it did not actually work. It did not focus the thoughts. There’s one thing about having a prize and a contest.”

@williamkremer

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