Why the world needs (and may get) a hoverbike

May 23

A Los Angeles-based start-up is accepting pre-orders for the Aero-X. It says test flights will begin in 2016. (Aerofex)

While not exactly akin to the sleek, aerodynamic flying motorcycles seen knifing through the forest in “Star Wars,” the Aero-X still looks impressively futuristic as it glides effortlessly over rugged terrain. And now, for $85,000, which includes a $5,000 refundable deposit, just about anyone can pre-order what may soon be the world’s first commercial hoverbike.

A glimpse of Los Angeles-based start-up Aerofex’s evolving concept was last shown back in 2012, when the company released a video that showed a 785-pound prototype, with dual-ducted rotors, rising to an altitude of about three feet as it built up speed. Filmed in the Mojave Desert, the clip was intended to demonstrate the aircraft’s steady flight dynamics and pinpoint maneuverability while being capable of traveling at a top speed of 45 mph. Safety features include a roll bar to protect riders in case of a crash and possibly air bags to cushion the entire vehicle.

Generally, hovercraft aren’t designed to be toys. They’re usually boat-sized, air-cushioned vehicles deployed by coast guards during search and rescue operations along coastal regions. With their ability to quickly transition from land to water, naval units around the world also keep a fleet on-hand for strategic reasons. But for Aerofex founder Mark De Roche, figuring out how to adapt the technology into a smaller, nimbler variation that “rides like a motorcycle” meant opening the door to an even wider range of practical applications.

“Contrary to what people may be saying, Aero-X wasn’t inspired by Star Wars,” De Roche points out. “There are actually many areas of need that it would be a perfect for. For instance, ranchers who herd horses have no choice but to use helicopters, and piloting them that close to the ground is dangerous. Also, it’ll allow farmers that aren’t in close proximity to an airport to do crop dusting.”

The Aero-X is estimated to cost $85,000. (Aerofex)
The Aero-X is estimated to cost $85,000. (Aerofex)

Though designs for a working hoverbike have been around since the 60s, the biggest hurdle has long been coming up with a steering system that compensates for what aerospace engineers refer to as the “coupling effect,” where the dynamics of propelling an object forward is affected by the motion of the spinning fans, causing it to veer or turn to the left. Conventional hovercrafts are able to mitigate the problem through the use of a bottom platform designed to blow out air through small strategically-placed vents. The drawback is that this tends to limit lift to no more than a few inches off the ground, particularly with smaller models.

De Roche wouldn’t go into detail with how he resolved the issue, due to patent reasons, but explained that the latest version features a number of field-tested modifications, such as a shroud around the bottom of both front and back rotors, to ensure greater stability. It’s also designed to respond intuitively to shifts in the rider’s body positioning to precisely execute turns and changes in direction — all without the assistance of computer software, he says.

“We wanted to build something where riders can fly without hesitation and worry, where it feels like you’ve been on it before the moment you hop on,” he adds. “So you’ve got a control interface that includes familiar components like handle bars and a seat that allows you to lean and tilt to navigate, so it’ll feel mostly like riding a motorcycle.”

There are a few notable exceptions, however. For instance, braking requires the rider to pitch toward the back. And since the vehicle is floating on air, it’s more sensitive to the ebb and flow of wind forces. “You’ll have to develop an intuitive sense and learn to make little adjustments like lean harder into a turn if you’re going against the wind,” De Roche says. “For me, it’s rather thrilling because steering the vehicle this way feels like you are moving with the air.”

Now before any joy riders who happen to have cash to burn get the itch to put down a deposit, De Roche stresses that the Aero-X is not street legal. And to avoid coming under the jurisdiction of the Federal Aviation Administration, which would require riders to obtain a pilot’s license, the bike’s altitude is limited to 12 feet or less. A commercial version, once ready, should fall into the same category as ATVs, which enables the aircraft to be operated in many states without restrictions, so long as it stays on private property.

Currently, the company’s plan is to initiate flight tests by 2016 as they prepare to deliver the first units the year after. But as with many such futuristic endeavors, don’t be surprised if it never gets off the ground, despite evidence to the contrary.

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Matt McFarland | May 22