When we saw the video of a hover bike that looked like it’d flown straight out of Return of the Jedi, we knew we had to get in touch with its creator. Luckily, Mark DeRoche of Aerofex was more than willing to talk about the bike his company built. Unfortunately, he made one thing pretty clear: These aren’t toys, and unless you’re a humanitarian doctor or border guard, you’ll probably never get the chance to act out your Skywalker fantasies.
“Where we see the biggest market would come in agriculture, search and rescue, border control and transportation,” DeRoche told Wired. “When I say transport, I don’t mean you and I taking one of these to go to the grocery store. I mean places where there’s very little ground infrastructure – the Australian outback, East Africa, a doctor going between villages.”
That’s exactly the target audience Aerofex had in mind when it first started work on a low-altitude tandem duct aerial vehicle eight years ago. Previously, the aerospace company had designed everything from imitation military helicopters for movie sets to cargo plane interiors optimized for transporting horses. An early prototype briefly got off the ground in 2008, but it took until January of this year for the team to build a fully working unit.
“I thought we were perfectly suited to make a product for that market,” DeRoche said. “I never expected it to take so long.”
The videos that made the rounds online were from tests in the California desert that took place last January. That vehicle was powered by a rotary engine and was covered in weights that allowed engineers to adjust trim in the field. Aerofex is already working on an improved version that’s properly trimmed, and they expect it to come out in October.
“We have all the molds in house, and [the next] one is coming out in a matter of a couple of months,” DeRoche said, so we’ll keep an eye out for more videos. As production ramps up, he said, the cost of each vehicle should fall somewhere between $50,000 and $100,000.
The vehicle itself uses ducted fans instead of exposed rotors. That prevents dust and debris from flying up, which is an important concern at low altitudes in the desert. In unmanned versions of the vehicle, it also allows ground crews to literally grab hold of it if something goes wrong. While the most recent prototype ran with a rotary engine and offered 20 minutes of flight, DeRoche said the design is “engine agnostic.” Ideally, he’d wants a low-emissions powerplant that could run for an hour and a half.
There are obvious defense uses for an unmanned vehicle that flies at altitudes of between 5 and 15 feet and can carry payloads of up to 800 pounds, but DeRoche said most of the interest so far has been from the agricultural sector, who want low-flying, easily controllable, unmanned vehicles for crop dusting. Current aircraft aren’t great at flying low over fields – think North by Northwest – and require an experienced pilot.
According to DeRoche, piloting the vehicle feels like nothing he’d ever imagined. “It’s a rush, there’s no doubt about it, but you get really used to this floating sensation. You don’t have tires that are holding you down,” he said.
“What is really exhilarating is the wind. Imagine you’re going into the wind and you do a banked turn at 180 degrees and you’re going downwind, it doubles your speed. Since you’re only 5 feet off the ground, you get this sensation of speed.”
That sure sounds like fun, but DeRoche insists he wouldn’t sell a hover bike to someone who wants it for fun. First of all, he thinks they’d be best used “for the greater good,” and that it “wouldn’t help the cause by giving it to some guy who later kills himself” while hooning around the desert. We suspect his future investors wouldn’t want that to happen, either.
Most importantly, though, he said they’re just not that fast. “When you’re only 5 or 15 feet off the ground, you can’t tell the difference between us an an ATV.” Indeed, even George Lucas had to play with the frame rate to make the speeder bike chase scenes look fast.
Though DeRoche can’t see a racing series with hoverbikes, he says they’ll be an integral part of transportation in the very near future. “Given time, I think these things will be prevalent,” he said. “I can’t imagine a future where they’re not there, but I don’t think they’re going to be driving to work.”
As for the Star Wars resemblance? “It’s probably a tribute to George Lucas’ team that we ended up doing something that looks what they did,” DeRoche said. “He had good vision.”
Photos/Video: Larry Bartholomew/Aerofex