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Franky Zapata: Flyboarding Frenchman crosses English Channel (bbc.co.uk)
175 points by bauc 78 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 57 comments

So we've got Franky Zapata, and we've got Richard Browning building something comparable in the UK, and David Mayman in Australia. Is there anyone else?

Why is this all happening now? They can't all have made revolutionary breakthroughs of their own simultaneously. Is there some underlying technology that has quietly improved to the point where personal aerial dickery has become feasible?

The primary things that's changed has been the availability of small powerful gas-turbine engines. That's what's made the folks you've mentioned, plus the Jetman project, possible.

To the best of my knowledge, this class of engines were originally developed for model aircraft.

I had a quick look and seems some impressive little jet engines out there in the model aircraft domain. Quick look found one capable of 25KG thrust, weights just over 1KG. Then when you factor in fuel per minute and weight of fuel per minute. Can soon see why a 22 mile trip needed a refuel. Though still better than jetpacks.

But certainly not cheap, looking around $2,000 mark and much of that would be due to supply/demand aspect. If demand increased, that price would drop.

Dirt cheap by military supplier standards. Makes a lot of sense as a small drone/cruise missile engine.

Coming soon to a wannabe State Level Actor's arsenal! I'm thinking Da'esh here, but could equally well be white supremacist militias or the New IRA post-Brexit, or just about anyone with a weapons R&D budget in low single-digit millions.

Just as smartphones have given us all a general purpose James Bond gadget in our pocket, so too is the availability of cheap computing elements, drone components, and tech like this going to give every militia on the planet the sort of smart weapons capability that was bleeding edge in the 1990s.

Here's a nice video showing such a model jet engine slurping fuel.


The description of the video contains all the numbers, including:

    Max. power: 300N (30,5kg)

    Fuel consumption: 980ml/min (at max power)

    Price: 5295 €

So you're telling me we are finally going to get both shiny silver vertical landing rockets (SpaceX) and jetpacks!?!?!

Big difference - shiny SpaceX rocket fails meh. Shiny jetpack fails dead person.

Some of the earlier attempts did have ballistic parachutes but you still had to deploy at least 75 feet high. Any lower and you're dead.

I assume these boards must be self stabilising, so the breakthrough would be the kind of miniaturised gyroscopes, accelerometers and associated processing power found in smartphones.

I'm not sure that's 100% true, I saw an interview with the french guy who said it took tens of hours to learn how to balance before he could fly it.

Adam savage used arm mounted jets to power his iron man suit: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U1wEO-pHizQ

I'm guessing the person flying this controls this using their legs and center of gravity.

Those chips are already very small. Modern toy drones have a PCB 16x16mm with all the electronics you need to control the drone: CPU, accelerometer, gyroscope, video signal processor, …

What everyone else said: the imagination was there, it's just now that technology has caught up. I'd been following this topic for the past year and literally just today wrapped it all up by a blog post on the topic: https://spmx.ca/flyingcars.

The biggest surprise? That human-powered flight has been a thing since the 60s. Second and third place, respectively, are the twins who made a bathtub fly and the drone BASE jumper. Insane!

Human-powered flight has been a thing since the 1930s! The earliest craft were only barely capable of unassisted takeoffs, but they made some surprising sustained flights after an assisted start. By the 60s, they were making real flights after unassisted takeoffs, and the 70s saw them with low-enough power consuption to complete turns and cross-country flights. Now we even have human-powered helicopters!

> drone BASE jumper

This was less good than I was hoping. They start the guy off on a radio tower, drag him a few meters, and then he lets go.

The reason was safety: there is a minimal height required for the chute to open in time. Any fall below that and the jumper's toast. They had the fellow start on the tower to ensure he'd have time to pull the chute in case of any slip-up.

I think Franky Zapata's development was gradual and incremental as far as I can tell. He started with the idea for the flyboard and kept thinking about what he was going to do next after he figured out the problem he was working on now.

I mean, why did the flyboard wait until 2012 to be invented? I don't know that there's a significant technical advance in it.

>why did the flyboard wait until 2012 to be invented? I don't know that there's a significant technical advance in it.

technically it has already been available for a long time, just at a very different price point :


Like drones and private space (SpaceX/etc) it is all about cheap&powerful electronics mostly and the good economy with a lot of money available for R&D at all levels.

Mentioned in the article how the French military has shown a fiscal backed interest for using this as an observation or assault platform.

Whilst platform is viable with gyro's or computer aided flying if you wish. How much kickback can it handle - could you actually fire a gun from this? But certainly does negate many of the aspect people have against armed drones as this is in effect a human drone.

But it is pretty neat, as many recall the facination with jetpacks and the dreams that we would all have them in the 60's/70's (along with flying cars), so this kinda ticks many box's of past dreams.

As for distance/flight time - kerosene is pretty dense energy wise, and I can't think of anything else that would be as flexible and offer greater energy density. But still, if you compare this to jetpacks - very impressive.

For me one use case for something like this may well be firefighting or certainly a way to escape a tall building that is on fire from your flat balcony.

Yea an assault helicopter transports troops to many locations and brings with it enough fire power to suppress anybody on the ground, however, it’s somewhat common that helicopters get hit by rpg’s and similar things by ground forces as they are landing or about to land so it does happen that helicopters crash land when deployed into the middle of a firefight and everybody climbs out rapidly and now are stranded. These personal airborne mobile weapons platforms (I’m sure there is an acronym there somewhere), would be much more effective if there was a swarm of say 20 of them. You couldn’t just shoot an rpg at all of them and they would have the high ground basically always and could just rain fire down on you from basically all angles.. sniper nest? Better be an igloo.. top of a building? Not enough cover..

Another place they could be used is to escape following a covert raid.. you would carry or stash the platforms someplace near the operation before hand then jump on them and all take off, you would only hear them escaping.

> You couldn’t just shoot an rpg at all of them

Yes, a single explosive projectile wouldn't be too effective, but consider an RPG round loaded with cluster bombs, shrapnel, or flechettes. Or the good ol' pray-n-spray with small-arms fire. You don't need much kinetic energy to kill a human on a hoverboard (or at least knock him off).

Helicopters put all of your eggs in one basket, but least it's a somewhat armored basket.

> How much kickback can it handle - could you actually fire a gun from this?

I don't think it's stable at all, and the only reason it stays vertical is because Zapata is unbelievably skilled at piloting it. That's why everything he does is above water. I was dreading the Bastille Day thing because I figured there was about a 25% that it would turn out poetically badly.

He did a presentation in Austin TX for the MotoGP earlier in the year... over the track, no water. Despite knowing Frank from our old js racing days, I must admit I noted his success(despite all of our incredulity) and immediately fast forwarded to the warm-up lap.

I saw him at a Redbull Air Race, doing the same flight track than the planes pilots.

Not as quick or admirable than the planes fighting for centiseconds, but still a pretty impressive live feat, making you think you’re seeing the future!

Navies are looking into this type of aircraft for opposed boarding operations. Like if they have to seize a merchant ship due to hijacking or sanctions violation. In some situations it could be safer and more effective than sending troops by helicopter.

The US military has been investing in this kind of technology since the 1950s. Here's an example from the Hiller Aviation Museum in San Carlos, California:


If you like amazing things that fly (and a couple that don't) the Hiller Aviation Museum is a must-see. I've never seen anything like it.

Reminds me of BattleTech's Elementals: http://www.sarna.net/wiki/Elemental_(Battle_Armor)

> How much kickback can it handle - could you actually fire a gun from this?

That's a problem that could be solved by firing a blank round (of similar momentum to the live round) in the opposite direction.

Zapata in an interview after the crossing indicated his invention calls on lots of core muscles, I assume in order to stay on top of the device. So forget about shouldering a gun on that thing.

Also if these kinds of devices are going to be armored, that’s gonna add to weight and fuel efficiency and maneuvering. At that point are to that much better than a UAV or helicopter?

The french military parade with Macron had me laughing my head off when I saw the clip.

If anyone wanted to defend against this type of aerial soldier other than them sticking out like a sore thumb to shoot people would could put up some thin cabling between tall building.

Do they even need to do that? He's got a tank full of kerosene on his back, a single rifle shot from someone with a good aim will be enough.

Self sealing fuel tanks have been around for a while, fascinating simple and clever design back during WW2 that saved many a life (and plane).


True, but it's very unlikely that the flyboard has some sort of redundancy built in: if a single jet engine gets hit the whole thing goes down. Exposive/incendiary ammo would also defeat the self sealing tank, assuming he's using one. To me it's a wonderful piece of engineering and I'd drool to pilot one (a few meters above sea level, I'm not a hero:^) but I wouldn't bring one in battle. It could make sense though to build a similar contraption under military jet pilots seats, so that if the pilot ejects, the seat brings him as far away as possible from enemy territory before deploying the parachute.

There are seven engines, and the firmware can adjust to the loss of one. "The company also says it’s intuitive and safe to use, with the computer-controlled systems providing built-in redundancies and automatic compensation if one of the jet engines fails. “I thought it was a gust of wind,” Henry Berkowitz, one of the two former special operators who now work for Zapata, told CNBC in 2017."

See https://www.thedrive.com/the-war-zone/23854/one-company-thin...

Thanks for the link! That makes it even more interesting. That military pilot makes it seem even more similar to a flying segway. I only wonder the amount of energy used to drive the center of gravity to maintain balance. In other words, if the same fixture was mounted as a jet backpack how much efficiency would be gained, if any?

Interesting thought about ejector seats, though those currently use solid fueled rockets iirc, as much safer.

Though it does as you say, offer some form of assisted powered control decent option. Not sure on the altitude and I know that becomes a factor for jets. Big difference operating around sea level and a few thousand feet up.

For me, something like this that would give firefighters the ability to reach and rescue people trapped up high in a building, even if one at a time. That truely opens up progress.

Alas the fire services have never ever had the same RnD budgets of military services, which is a thought that opens up a whole raft of debate as an indictment upon how we view protecting lives and assets - given fire in the modern world kills more people. For example in the UK in you get around 300 deaths a year due to fire. Compared with an average of 50 lives a year military wise. Though it is a bit like comparing apples with pears, it does make you think how some priorities are more grounded in history than others.

Now what this might open up as a viable alternative to parachute would be helicopters that tend to operate at altitudes that preclude any parachute. Sure you would need to eject the rotor and seen that upon military helicopters, that eject the cockpit. But this might open up safety upon more commercial offering.

Kerosene in the form of modern Jet A-1 fuel is not very flammable. It would probably be impossible to ignite it with a bullet.

I can see this as the "penthouse to penthouse" service of choice - and I for one would love to tour manhattan on one.

Likelihood of licensing some moron with a tank full of jet fuel to buzz above thousands of pedestrians- about zero % :-(

> Likelihood of licensing some moron with a tank full of jet fuel to buzz above thousands of pedestrians- about zero %

Well, in the US there are plenty of morons with licensed fire arms, so why would jetpacks be an obstacle?

>with licensed fire arms

Even more with unlicensed fire arms.

cars are a better proxy than firearms in this case: accidents are not the same as violence, intention counts...

It's for the better- even ignoring the risk of physical harm, these motors are loud. Cities would be orders of magnitude more obnoxious if you had the upper class constantly buzzing overhead in vehicles that made a Harley-Davidson sound like a soft purr.

I think most of the comments here are incredibly short sighted. I see this as a huge development. Nobody cares about fuel consumption when inventing a new mode of transportation that says goodbye to roads, airports, boats. This is just insane and could change the world.

This is a really cool invention, and I think it would be a lot of fun to use. But it's not the first personal flying device, and fuel considerations have been an obstacle to many of those.


"their uses are much more limited than their fictional counterparts because of the challenges of Earth's atmosphere, gravity, low energy density of available fuels, and the human body not being suited to fly, and they are principally used for stunts"

The "low energy density of available fuels" is a concern for this device too: note that the prototype required refueling in order to cross the English Channel. Having to carry your own fuel is a big limitation for flying machines.

I wonder how much money he would have got if he was in the US ?

Edit: if he was american and built it in the US

Where would an American demonstrate their machine ?

The ~20 mile distance provided by the Channel is just about right for stunts like this.

I imagine you could find lots of 20 mile shore to shore routes in the great lakes. And an easy way to scale up once that's not long enough.

A loop around Manhattan is about 30 miles.

lake michigan, san francisco bay, niagara falls, grand canyon

Not comparable. That's a much longer flight.

lmao, I'm pretty sure the commenter said "if he had built this in the US", rather than "if he had flown across the atlantic"

Exactely !

I'm game for a laugh and achievement. But such ventures if proposed as commercially viable are surely a non-starter owing to environmental impact?

I suspect not a very eco-friendly solution.

Also, wouldn't this be way more efficient if he just added some small delta wings?

It would be difficult, for them to work they must have the correct angle of attack.

The way the device is controlled is by constantly changing the angle of the jets, so the wings need to be angled precisely otherwise it'll counteract the control input.

I suspect body position would make a much bigger impact. https://www.businessinsider.com/why-ski-jumpers-fly-in-a-v-s... Obviously there are no skis.

And no video of it. Brilliant.

You gotta give it to those cops playing with the protesters in the second video... Judging by the difference in weapons, those young guys got away with more than a fun experience to look back, retell, relive... Reminds me of NYC occupy protesters busting into McDonalds' buildings to take milk.

Play safe, everyone.


Harvey Danger - Flagpole Sitta


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