New engine technology could make a very powerful and useful military hoverbike

The U.S. Army’s top technology official, Mary Miller, described her pursuit of a future force that includes high-powered lasers, self sustaining combat outposts, and autonomous deep learning machines.

US Army leadership showed support for the hoverbike program by displaying it at the service’s official booth. Called the tactical reconnaissance vehicle by the Army Research Laboratory, service officials see it serving a host of missions, including resupply, attack and personnel transport.

The U.S. Army is working on a futuristic “hoverbike” that could carry one to two soldiers up to ten feet off the ground at speeds around 60 miles per hour over land and water.

The Army Research Laboratory signed a contract nine months ago with SURVICE Engineering and Malloy Aeronautics to develop a hoverbike prototype for the Army to test in three to five years. SURVICE is based in Maryland and Malloy is based in Britain.

The two companies will first develop a commercial version of the hoverbike that can carry about 250 pounds and cost about $80,000 before the companies produce a military variant, said Mark Butkiewicz, SURVICE Engineering’s manager of applied technology. He explained that the Army would like the bike to carry about 400 to 800 pounds to allow soldiers to pack their weapons and equipment on board.

The Army said the hoverbike doesn’t necessarily need a soldier on board to steer as Timothy Vong, the project coordinator for the Army Research Laboratory, explained that the service wants the companies to develop manned and unmanned capabilities.

Butkiewicz compared the commercial and the military variants of the hoverbike to the differences between the Humvee and its commercial version, the Hummer. He didn’t want to give many more details of the requirements and details of the contract signed with the Army.

In 2015 the hoverbike had a 1,170 cc four-stroke engine in a carbon fiber frame. It supports nearly 600 pounds of weight, which means both soldiers and their heavy gear could go for a spin.

Malloy Aeronautics is working on the hooverbike. Malloy has teamed up with SURVICE which has 400 employees. SURVICE is a specialty engineering firm that has been providing R and D support for the U.S. Department of Defense and other industry sectors for more than 30 years.

Quiet Motorcycle engine could be adapted to hoverbike

DARPA has several stealth motorcyble engines. They feature cutting-edge hybrid multi-fuel engines that can burn a variety of combustibles like JP-8, Jet A-1, gasoline, propane, etc.. When not operating in quiet mode, both are as loud as a garbage disposal, roughly 80 decibels. When operating in quiet mode, both rely on a lithium-ion electric battery, which keeps the noise down to around 55 decibels, about as loud as an indoor conversation.

The Silent Hawk motorcycle’s electric system is from Alta Motors. “They have purpose built this battery pack to be of higher density … They have an active cooling system in it that insures that even if there is a cell failure that one cell will fail with no explosion.

The Military is also funding the liquid piston engine which is three to ten times smaller and lighter for the same power. LiquidPiston built a functioning engine and has demonstrated it powering a Go-kart. Shkolnik says the engine could see its first practical application, in a drone, within a few years. The liquid piston engine weighed 4 pounds and replaced a 40 pound engine.

Ultimately, the LiquiPiston engine will power exoskeletons, robots, drones, boats, electric cars, and generators. A typical 30 kilowatt-hour generator weighs 1,000 pounds or more, with military versions are closer to 3,000 pounds. Shkolnik says LiquidPiston’s engine could generate that kind of power in a unit that weighs less than 400.

More power and lighter weight could boost the military hoverbike performance to 100-200 mph. The hoverbike could have stealth mode engines or brief operations using high density batteries to allow stealth approach.

The go-kart’s conventional piston engine is on the left, the LiquidPiston rotary alternative is on the right

IEEE Spectrum interviewed Shkolnik

“Many people immediately try to sell improved engines to the automotive and truck market, and I can’t blame them, it’s a $300 billion market,” Shkolnik says. “But to bring a new engine to life in the automotive world takes at least seven years and costs, quite literally, $500 million—and that’s for a piston engine, where the risk is low.”

So he’s looking first at markets that have an urgent need for very compact engines—hand-held power tools, cargo-carrying drones for the likes of Amazon and FedEx, and most interestingly, range extenders for cars.

“We have the concept of a 30-kilowatt engine operating on diesel, 30 lbs, in a 10 by 8 inch box,” Shkolnik says. “It could be part of an e-vehicle for masses, giving you the range you’re accustomed to—300 miles instead of 30—and rapid refueling.”