WASHINGTON — A US company currently in the explosives-trace-detection business is in the process of acquiring a French hoverboard company that it hopes will excite the defense, security and commercial markets.
When Marty McFly hopped on a hoverboard in the movie Back to the Future, it was supposed to be the year 2015. But while not everyone is using hoverboards to get around now like the movie imagined, Zapata Industries SAS of Marseilles, France, reached a proof-of-concept milestone this year by producing a personal flight system it's calling Flyboard Air, bringing the long-fantasized concept of an intuitive hoverboard into reality.
And Implant Sciences Corporation, of Wilmington, Mass., which makes Explosives Trace Detection (ETD) solutions for the Department of Homeland Security, wants to get in on the action.
Implant Sciences signed a letter of intent at the end of July to acquire Zapata Industries because it was looking at new ways to grow its business in the homeland security and defense space, Bob Liscouski, the president of Implant Sciences told Defense News.
"We are in constant review of technologies," Liscouski said. "We came across what we think is a non-existent market for something, which is a brand new technology that can really shape a brand new market."
The company sees the Flyboard Air as "a real, scalable solution that could really provide what people candidly had only seen in movies and looked at from a science-fiction perspective," Liscouski said. "It's a real technology."
Liscouski acknowledged that not every technology turns out to be a good business idea. "I'm not going to try to overplay or overblow expectations here, we are taking a very rational and business-like approach toward this," he said. "But you can't help get excited when you see it. You want one. I want one."
The company has taken the proof-of-concept Flyboard to various interested communities "particularly with the [Defense Department] and the special operators' community" to find out if they believe there is a practical application for it. "The feedback that we are getting is 'Yes'," he said. "So that further validated our thinking going down this path."
The hope is, Liscouski said, to bring the technology into the company and build the company around it. "We think there is a variety of military and other civilian applications, and we think there is a whole, wide-open commercial application to it."
The hoverboard invented by Zapata Industries' owner Franky Zapata is powered by four jet engines. The controlling mechanism "is sort of where the secret sauce is," Liscouski said. "Zapata has created their own algorithms to ensure they've got the right balance control and redundancies to safeguard an engine failure."
Zapata, a world champion jet-ski racer, came up with the Flyboard in 2012, which jump-started a $200 million hydroflight sports and recreation industry, but in 2016 he took the invention to a new level with Zapata Air, which is lighter, faster, safer and less expensive.
Zapata is "very methodical in his approach so there are redundant systems in there, so you could have one engine fail and you are not going to lose control," Liscouski said.
Zapata himself has flown the Flyboard, in a demonstration for the French navy, off of a moving patrol boat, flying around in 40 mph wind and landing back on the same platform.
The hoverboard can fly at about 60 mph and flights have covered the distance of a couple of miles, Liscouski said. While Zapata has only flown the hoverboard a couple hundred feet high, there's no reason it could not go much higher, but if the idea is to fly it at 10,000 feet, supplemental oxygen would need to be added, he said.
Only about 20 hours of training is required to teach someone to fly on the hoverboard.
Liscouski envisions immediate military applications such as classic troop movement — infiltration and exfiltration — but the platform could be scaled beyond just a platform that can accommodate a person standing on it.
"We are looking to scale the platform for supply — logistical supply — and medical evacuation," Liscouski said. He pointed to Amazon looking to deliver packages using drones and said, "We are producing enough thrust to carry close to 200 kilograms," which equates to about 440 lbs.
Medical evacuation is a particularly interesting application, Liscouski argued. "You can imagine creating a litter, a medevac litter, that is autonomously controlled" which can then fly to a hospital or another location for treatment.
"We are looking at those and we can scale them. We don't think it's a technical challenge at this point, it's an application and design challenge," Liscouski noted.
"All that being said, we are very committed to providing very state-of-the-art, great solutions for the homeland-security, defense space. That is kind of our DNA and that is where we are today."
Jen Judson is the land warfare reporter for Defense News. She has covered defense in the Washington area for 10 years. She was previously a reporter at Politico and Inside Defense. She won the National Press Club's best analytical reporting award in 2014 and was named the Defense Media Awards' best young defense journalist in 2018.