Whether careening around (and occasionally into) massive trees on The Return of The Jedi’s lithe speederbikes or maneuvering deftly around alien defenses and smashing aside resistance in the ludicrously colored Ghost from Halo, the hoverbike has become a staple of military sci-fi dreamers.
The protagonists of many science fiction worlds often hitch a ride on such transportation, which can be generally defined as being a one or two-seater vehicles that do anything from hover at a certain height above the ground, to acting as supersonic aircraft a la Larry Niven’s Ringworld. Such technology might finally leap from the screen into our lives. Around the world, inventors, corporations, and militaries are racing to design hoverbikes and their sibling, the hoverboard.
Perhaps the most feasible of these devices is Franky Zapata’s hoverboard, which has won a Guinness record for a 2,252 meter flight along a French beach. Despite its proven effectiveness, the apparent difficulty of its operation and the risks posed by a pilot or mechanical error over ground may limit its usefulness. This risk hardly deterred Zapata, and other companies and individuals have attempted similar devices. Yet the biggest breakthroughs may come from military researchers.
The US Department of Defense, specifically the Strategic Capabilities Office, is working jointly with the Marine Corps to develop a vehicle known as the Joint Tactical Aerial Resupply Vehicle. With a tentative projected payload of up to 800 pounds and a range of 125 miles, the JTARV may one day be able to fly at high speeds very low to the ground to help evade detection. While the current focus of the project is on autonomous resupply rather than being ridden by Jedi, it is envisioned to eventually be capable of carrying human occupants. If the projected 800-pound payload is achieved, it could even carry a fully armored and encumbered soldier.
Wielding technology like this on the battlefield will bring both new capabilities and also new risks. Thinkers like US Army Major John Spencer have suggested deployment in urban environments by highly trained and sufficiently equipped and protected soldiers. As early as the 1950s, the possibility of highly mobile flying infantry were seen as likely by Lt. Col Robert B. Rigg, who depicted flying jeeps and other small vehicles ferrying infantry, essentially turning every engagement into a hit and run battle. While advanced anti-air capabilities might make it impossible for a force to rely solely on such vehicles, it’s easy to imagine single- or two-person hoverbikes providing unique opportunities for special operations forces missions, as well as supply, casualty evacuation and maneuvering of infantry, especially in low-intensity conflicts waged against non-state actors like the ones we’ve been fighting for the last decade. Even in these situations there would be more significant threats than what Luke Skywalker found racing through the forests of Endor. The future pilot may have to protect themselves not only from counter-UAV systems such as short-range missiles and directed energy weapons, but also from weaponized UAVs themselves, such as high-speed hunter quadcopters with explosive payloads.
Despite such difficulties, the concept of infantry darting into a conflict zone on personal air vehicles harkens back to the Jet Age’s supercharging of the imagination through technological breakthroughs. Likewise, the possibility of highly mobile infantry units is promising in an era where the threat from guided munitions paired with persistent sensors makes any slow-moving or paused force a target. Where will this move-or-die imperative leave future infantry? Perhaps one day in the future, historians will look back at the dawn of hoverbike soldiers the way we look back at the end of the horse-mounted cavalry era.
Alec Medén is a writer-at-large for The Art of the Future Project. For his story “Willie Pete Has No Off Switch,” Alec Medén was a finalist in the Atlantic Council Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security Global Trends 2035 creative contest that called for writers to explore the technologies, trends and themes that will shape the world two decades from now. He is also a past winner of the project’s “Space” war-art challenge with “From A Remove,” judged by bestselling author David Brin, for a story that envisioned the future of space conflict during the last decade of the 21st Century. Alec is majoring in screenwriting and creative writing at Chapman University in Southern California. He can be found on Twitter @alecmeden.