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Is the hoverbike about to become reality?

About the author

Jack is the presenter of Science in Action on the BBC World Service. He trained as a mechanical engineer (with automotive and aeronautic design) before becoming a journalist. He has worked at the BBC for over a decade and has reported from areas as diverse as war zones and technology shows

Those childhood dreams of doing the commute on a Star Wars Speeder Bike might be possible if a revolutionary hoverbike design takes off. (Video above has no sound)

Getting from A to B is very rarely boring in the world of science fiction – sadly real life is often a let-down in comparison. We do not have many floating, hovering, flying vehicles, despite a great deal of engineering effort from entrepreneurs to develop jetpacks, flying cars, and radical hovercraft.

But if the hoverbike currently being developed by Los Angeles-based Aerofex, gets off the ground, this could change. It is uncannily reminiscent of a Speeder Bike from the original Star Wars trilogy.

The device is named the Aero-X and it takes up about as much room as a small car. Eventually there will be space for just two passengers though, and early prototypes show only one brave test-rider, who perches on top of two horizontal spinning blades encased in circular housings.

The company calls it a crossover vehicle. It is technically a hovercraft, but it apparently feels like riding a motorbike. It is designed for low-altitude flying, and can zoom over ground that even an all-terrain vehicle (ATV) would struggle with. Aerofex says it will be capable of 72km/h (45mph).

But at a cost of $85,000, who is a crossover hoverbike aimed at, beyond the odd rich eccentric with a head for heights? Although it’s a niche product, the company’s CTO and founder Mark DeRoche told me it could be a lucrative niche. “There’s really nothing between a ground vehicle and an aircraft,” he says, apart from much more expensive helicopters and small planes. Aerofex thinks its vehicle could be useful for farmers, both for agriculture (crops) and herding animals. It could also be used by emergency services, for disaster relief or search and rescue, as well as for border patrols.

(Aerofex)

The vehicles are due to go on sale in 2017 - and will cost $80,000 each (Aerofex)

None of these people fly aircraft for a living, so the vehicle will have to be easy enough for a non-pilot to fly. The company says that should be possible, and that the rider sits in a position where the vehicle responds to his movements similar to the way a motorcycle would. Aerofex says it has found that, for this type of vehicle, it makes sense to fly up to around 20ft (6m) above the ground.

The concept behind the Aero-X isn’t new, with similar designs dating back to the 1950s. Piasecki Helicopter Co (now Piasecki Aircraft) built three variants of "flying Jeep" for the US army. Cutbacks in military spending meant the vehicles were never developed further, but they serve as a proof-of-concept for tandem-duct aircraft like the hoverbike, says DeRoche.

Flight controls

The video (above) shows early test flights of the Aero-X, with no computer interface between the pilot and the controls. DeRoche says this is to prove that the controls are as intuitive as possible. It’s important to prove that stable flight is possible without constant, complicated computer intervention, says DeRoche. “If we had said, ‘Oh by the way there’s a computer in there’ it would be like photoshopping our videos.”

Production hoverbikes will probably have more computers to help guide the pilot, particularly in extreme circumstances. Like traction control technology in a modern car, the computer could help a driver going too fast, or who, in a flying vehicle, encounters strong winds for example.

Another significant design consideration is the engine. The Aero-X uses a special rotary engine, which DeRoche says offers additional safety benefits. “They have some features that we need,” he says. “For example a piston engine could seize – we can’t allow that.”

(Aerofex)

Aerofex says the vehicle could have a variety of uses, including agricultural work and border patrols (Aerofex)

A rotary engine design should continue to allow the blades to rotate, even if it stops running, which could help in landing the craft in an emergency. A conventional engine, on the other hand, can lock in one position if a major component fails. That’s because rotary engines do away with conventional pistons which reciprocate, up and down – action that has to be then converted into rotational movement. Instead they have a spinning rotor to do the jobs of compression, ignition, combustion and exhaust in sequence.

It will be interesting to see if the company can overcome some of the well-known limitations of rotary engines. Mazda was one leading car-maker that used them, in their RX line of vehicles, but in general they have proven to be difficult to make clean and fuel efficient, and they need scrupulous regular maintenance to avoid engine failures. (Mazda has since stopped rotary engine car sales, as they could not meet emissions standards).

Aerofex says it is working on three different proposals to bring vehicles such as the Aero-X into commercial production. The company is talking to the US government, looking at the commercial market, and also working on an unmanned version of the vehicle – a drone that could be used for crop dusting, for instance.

The company says deliveries should start in 2017 – if you’re feeling optimistic you can place a deposit for one now.

The Aerofex may not whisk you between giant trees at 200mph – sorry Star Wars fans – but it is definitely more out-of-this-world than your average hatchback.

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