Hoverbikes are the stuff of literal science fiction. Perhaps best known for their role in Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi, hoverbikes are as imagined one-person transports that fly above the ground, great for carrying scouts but also terrible at avoiding trees. British firm Malloy Aeronautics built a quadcopter hoverbike that can carry a robot. Now, Malloy has joined with an American firm to develop the hoverbike for the Department of Defense.
Malloy’s hoverbike is closer in practice to a quadcopter than anything else. Two rotating blades in front and two in back provide lift and thrust, with controls and a seat in the middle for a pilot. Unlike the ill-fated hoverbikes of Star Wars, Malloy’s bike can fly above the trees, making it less like a very fast motorcycle and more like a very dainty helicopter scout. Malloy’s one-third scale version is remotely piloted, and it’s likely that any full-sized version will have the option of flying without a human onboard too, making it not just a hoverbike, but a drone that soldiers can ride.
To develop the bike in the United States, Malloy partnered with SURVICE, a Maryland-based defense contractor and engineering company. The partnership was announced last week at the Paris Air Show. As Reuters reported at the show, Mark Butkiewicz of SURVICE said:
Malloy’s hoverbike is designed for the U.S. Army. The idea immediately conjures to mind images of robotic cavalry, scouting ahead of mechanized armies. It’s also not the first time the Army’s looked for hovering scouts. Below, some of the previous attempts at Army hover scouts.
The HZ-1 Aerocycle is like a Segway if, when the driver lost his footing, he was immediately shredded by two contra-rotating fast-spinning blades below his feet. Somehow, neither the Popular Science mention of it in 1956 or this army video about it mentioned that immediate, obvious risk.
Similar to the Aerocycle, the Hiller Pawnee is a one-person helicopter where the pilot stands on a platform on top of the engine. Developed in 1957, the Pawnee used a ducted fan instead of helicopter-style blades. It suffered from engine weight problems, and the Pentagon never pursued it beyond initial development. While the Malloy hoverbike doesn’t use ducted fans, other hoverbikes have.
Piasecki Airgeep Family
Also developed in 1957, the Airgeep family of jeep-like helicopters was an Army transportation project designed to get troops off the ground and flying through the sky. Pictured above is the Airgeep 2, which had two 520 horsepower engines and could carry up to 1,000 pounds. The Airgeep was made to fly just above the ground, but could reach heights of 1,000 feet. Soldiers on board could also fire weapons, as pictured here. While incredibly cool (technical term), the Airgeep’s job on land was done more cheaply by actual jeeps, and in the sky it was outmatched by helicopters. The Army decided not to pursue it further, citing costs and “the rigor of field operations.”
Williams Aerial Systems Platform
Developed in the 1970s, the Williams Aerial Systems Platform (WASP) is a one-person flying vehicle that resembles nothing so much as two men hugging a jet engine. While the scout didn’t place its crew directly over their own certain doom, the Army canceled it nonetheless. This time, the reasoning was more practical: with only about 30 minutes of flying time, the WASP didn’t offer enough value to be worth further development, especially when compared to drones or helicopters. It still looks weird and cool in the air, though. Watch it in action.
Kelsey D. Atherton is a military technology journalist who has contributed to Popular Science since 2013. He covers uncrewed robotics and other drones, communications systems, the nuclear enterprise, and the technologies that go into planning, waging, and mitigating war.