If you’ve seen photos of a new flying motorcycle called the Speeder, you might be as confused as we are about in what way it's a motorcycle. It looks more like a flying jet ski or snowmobile, to be honest, but whatever. It's still undeniably cool. And if the company had its way, there'd be one of their bitchin' flying motorcycles in every tiny garage. But it isn't real yet, and how it gets from concept to reality is a big mystery. Here's why.
JetPack Aviation isn't a make believe company. It's already built an extreme machine, a real flying jet pack. Just like James Bond. And there might actually be a market for a jet pack or a flying "motorcycle." We’d totally want a flying jet-powered “motorcycle,” that is if we didn’t think too hard about the risks. I mean, what could possibly go wrong? Yikes.
How will things go for the Speeder? Truthfully, it's not easy to see how it makes it to production. The story of the company's other product, its jet pack, might be telling.
It was four years ago that the company's CEO and chief test pilot David Mayman made the first public flight of the company's JB-9 jet pack by taking it for a spin around the Statue of Liberty. Mayman even saluted Lady Liberty in flight – a move the likes of which fictional superhero/scientist Tony Stark (aka Iron Man) surely would have approved (though he’d doubtless have had bad guys chasing him at the time).
But the point is, the jet pack works. It’s in the pre-production stage still, and the expected selling price, $380,000, ain't cheap, but it's about what we’d expect. You can't get one yet, though. The company is doing fundraising in advance of production and is exploring different ways to get people strapped into one, including rentals and other experience packages. In the meantime JetPack Aviation is working on adding a built-in rescue parachute to the package. Which makes sense to us. If the engines fail, you can just pop the chute and ride it down...instead of the grisly alternative. Because, without looking at any charts we can tell you the jet pack's no-engine glide ratio is exactly that of a grand piano falling from a seventh story apartment. A chute makes nothing but sense.
Regardless, even if it can be made into a product that is safe enough to sell, JetPack still hasn't started delivering the product and has no firm timetable to do so.
As far as the flying bike, the Speeder, is concerned, well, it's still in the concept stage. Can it be built? The challenges are greater than those of the jet pack, but it sounds theoretically doable given JetPack's track record and the current state of the art of electronic controls. The Speeder will be powered by four very small but surprisingly powerful turbojet engines that will vector thrust to control where the bike goes. Yeah, we're guessing computers are involved to make that happen. Together the four engines produce slightly more than 700 pounds of thrust. That's enough power to get the 230-pound craft (an ambitious goal) and its pilot airborne, the company says, and we can see that. But remember, they haven’t done it yet….it’s all calculations at this point. They also say it will go as fast as 150 mph, as high as 15,000 feet. We’re not holding our breath on either count, though we might need to hold our breath if it does go to 15,000 feet, where the air is thin and pilots are required by law to use supplemental oxygen. The company says that a tank of fuel will last about 22 minutes depending on the altitude and weight of the operator. So it won't be an interstate travel machine.
But even if JetPack the company can come up with a flying prototype of the "motorcycle," and that's a big "if," it will face tough hurdles in the form of government regulations that don't seem to allow such a vehicle to be produced for sale to the public.
Perhaps to answer some of that doubt, the company says it might build an ultralight version of the Speeder so non-pilots can fly it. You don't need a license to fly an ultralight. At the same time, you've got to figure a person piloting this thing would really need to know what they were doing, so is an ultralight version even a good idea?
It might not matter because it's probably not even possible. When the FAA wrote the book on ultralights (FAR Part 103) way back in the 1980s, it intentionally limited what you could do in one of these tiny air vehicles. There's a limit on no-fuel weight (254 pounds,which the Speeder might make); speed (63 mph max at the fastest and no faster than 26 mph on the low end); occupants (1) and max fuel capacity (a mere 5 gallons).Only one of those is even remotely doable.
So if an ultralight version is out, then what?
They could try the Light Sport Aircraft (LSA) category, another FAA category for really small aircraft, but they wouldn't get much help there either. Those rules prohibit anything but reciprocating engines (like those in your regular, non-electric car). And the Speeder will be too fast for the LSA Category anyways: the LSA max speed limit is 138 mph.
The category that allows folks to build their own planes, Amateur-built experimental, doesn't have such limits on weight and speed and such, but it's probably a non-starter, too, because the Speeder would be factory built and not amateur built, as required for those experimental planes, though that requirement can be gotten around by making the Speeder and easy-to-build kit.
The way we see it, full certification the old fashioned way (under Part 23) might be the most likely course. Historically most planes have been built that way. The problem is that today it's incredibly expensive and time consuming to pull it off, if you can even get your aircraft to fly in a way the FAA will approve, and it's never even imagined anything like the Speeder before. On top of all that, those conventionally approved aircraft require a lot more training to fly (a private pilot's license at a minimum). And that's just the beginning of the complications.
There is hope, though. The FAA is working on making it easier to get very small aircraft like these approved, but those rules are not in effect yet, and there's no way of telling if they'll cover flying motorcycles or jet packs. Even if they did, that process is not going to be simple, cheap or quick either.
JetPack Aviation says it plans to start building Speeders soon. We don’t know how that’s possible, especially not in the near future. The company responded to our emailed questions by offering to do an interview next week. We have not spoken with them yet.
In the meantime, check out their cool animated video of the kind of flying motorcycle they hope to someday be building and delivering to customers, even if it’s not clear yet how that is going to happen.