The Next Big Thing In Toys

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After a fashion, airplanes are toys. No, not all of them, because an Air Tractor earns its keep applying chemicals and Caravans haul skydivers and boxes. But if you own an old taildragger or a beater Cherokee, it’s a recreational toy.

With that in mind, I’ve noticed some new developments in the toy market and some of them have to do with aviation. The Icon A5 is certainly a toy and so is this new multi-rotor contraption we reported on this week. It’s essentially nothing but a manned drone with commercial pretensions that are well over the horizon if they’re likely to potentiate at all.

One that blurs the line between boat, submarine and airplane is a personal watercraft called the SeaBreacher. Here’s a video of it that someone sent me a link to. It doesn’t fly in the conventional sense nor is it a true submersible. But it does dip below the surface and it does hop at least partially out of the water. The instant I saw this I thought it appeals to the same potential buyer as the Icon does: an expensive toy for just fooling around in the water or in the air. No other purpose than that.

Is there a sustainable market for such things? We’re about to find out. We’ve explained the Icon business idea of expanding general aviation into the recreational motor sports market. In a way, the Icon is incidental to traditional aviation. It has no other purpose than a fun activity that happens to be an airplane. There’s a lot of wealth in the world and probably plenty of people with enough disposable cash to buy such things. Unknown is whether there are enough of them to constitute a profitable business.

As part of our AirVenture coverage, we reported on yet another entry into the expensive toy market, the Kitty Hawk piloted multi-rotor. The day I showed up to watch it fly at the seaplane base, it was too windy so I interviewed the aircraft developer, Todd Reichert, in this video.

As a would-be expensive toy that offers nothing but the potential to buzz around a lake at 10 feet, I like the concept. Reichert eschews comparing the Kitty Hawk to a scaled-up DJI drone, but that’s what it is. It uses similar technology and identical flight dynamics. Because it can be auto-stabilized, you could learn to fly it—operate it, really—in mere minutes. It thus offers the potential to attract new entrants into what will be part of GA’s future: autonomous and semi-autonomous aircraft.

What would such a thing have to cost to be viable? Kitty Hawk won’t even venture a guess, nor in an annoying counter to the spirit of AirVenture’s show and tell, would they let us even examine it at close range. For that, I’m giving their Silicon Valley specialness a big razz, even if I like the idea. I ran the idea by a couple of electric aviation experts and we came up with prices of about $40,000 on the low end and a little over $100,000 on the high end. My guess is that if it’s over $200,000, it’s a non-starter. That SeaBreacher PWC sells for about $100,000 or five times the price of a typical Jet-Ski type vehicle. I can’t tell from the company’s website or news reports if the thing has real potential or is just click bait, even if I like that idea, too.

The Kitty Hawk has some ground to cover in battery technology and endurance and probably in refinement of the basic technology, but the basics are certainly there. Assuming a large enough market exists to make it viable, there are two potential barriers, one minor, one major. The minor one is licensing. Kitty Hawk is planning to operate under ultralight rules that require neither licensing nor certification. But they’ll need to keep the empty weight under 254 pounds and keep the FAA from throwing any yeah-but exceptions to the rule because the regulation never foresaw stabilized multi-rotors.

The other gotcha is noise. Multi-rotors emit an insect-like buzz that’s impossible to effectively suppress. I can just imagine a lakeside dweller sipping his morning coffee on the deck only to have the solitude shattered by some nimrod whizzing by on a multi-rotor. Or an Icon, for that matter. To forestall the shotgun solution, the nascent multi-rotor industry will have to address this. Or lakeside communities will.

The next decade will be interesting to watch as this technology either sinks or swims on its merits and marketability. I wouldn’t invest in it myself, but I give it an eight in 10 chance of succeeding as the next big thing in toys.

Comments (6)

Paul, you are an optimist with your 8 in 10 chance of success. Some form of these craft will make a market presence just as do other high end toys, e.g. Bugatti and Aston Martin cars. Unfortunately, many of the early designs and companies will fall short.

I am not one to condemn a new concept, actually I wish that they could come in affordable versions. The market reality is such that there will be quite a few companies that fall by the wayside. Sort of like the LSA market. Nothing wrong with the concept and for many nothing wrong with the product. Just market reality too many companies chasing not enough $. Sort of like what happened to the GA market in the years after WWII.

The true test will be battery technology. Currently the flight control systems are maturing and the electric motors progressing a good pace, however, the battery situation is still sub optimal. In the mean time, I will keep my wallet close to my hip and not disturb the moth's in residence.

Posted by: Leo LeBoeuf | October 5, 2017 10:03 AM    Report this comment

I can hardly wait for the day when Kitty Hawks and SeaBreachers try to share a public lake with all the current Ski-Doos buzzing around on a sunny summer day. Throw in a few six packs and the results will not be pretty.

Posted by: John McNamee | October 5, 2017 11:25 AM    Report this comment

Do they have foldable models of these "toys?" Elon and his followers might enjoy zipping around Mars in them when he gets there? Colonization could surely be enhanced, But, of course, ONLY if they're electric cuz we wouldn't want to 'foul' the atmosphere of Mars and sunlight is plentiful anyways.

Posted by: Larry Stencel | October 5, 2017 2:07 PM    Report this comment

The Seabreacher operates as HydroAttack in Queenstown, New Zealand, selling 15 minute rides for 149NZD. It has the sound of someone vacuuming in the next room. All day.

Posted by: Gareth Allen | October 5, 2017 3:49 PM    Report this comment

Nice toys. I'll anxiously wait to buy after someone assures a next decade.
Waiting for the other shoe ...

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | October 6, 2017 9:23 PM    Report this comment

Yup, aviation toys have been around for years and they don't have to be $100K. You can buy an older Quicksilver single place or two place and fix it up for $5-10K (for a two place). A Quicksilver sprint is fun! It flies along at about 45mph, just right for taking in the scenery at 400 ft. And some would argue that it's safer than a motorcycle with the crazy, distracted drivers on the roads these days. Of course, there are those pesky drones to worry about...

Posted by: DANA NICKERSON | October 8, 2017 11:36 AM    Report this comment

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