The Next Big Thing In Toys
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.