This flying French rifleman is a triumph of future past

With a rifle in one hand, the infantryman flew over the military parade atop a hoverboard. Below the flying person was an array of ground robots in military service. Above, jets trailed dyed smoke, drawing the tricolor in the sky. At an event designed to celebrate the full pride and power of the French military, it was the single hoverboard-borne rifle that President Emmanuel Macron chose to highlight from Bastille Day 2019.

“Fier de notre armée, moderne et innovante,” he tweeted. “Proud of our army, modern and innovative.”

But how modern and innovative, exactly, is hoverboard-mounted infantry?

In specifics, the machine is quintessentially modern. Invented by Frank Zapata, the Flyboard was originally marketed as a recreational item, a sort of quadcopter-like machine built out of ducted fans that a pilot could stand on. In 2016, a rider on the Zapata flyboard octupled the distance record for hoverboard flights. The device itself is novel and risky enough to operate that its creator was banned for some time from flying it in France. The 2019 version of the craft reportedly has a top speed of around 120 mph and a total flight time of 10 minutes.

In intent, the Flyboard fits into a much longer pattern of trying to put humans in the low sky with the least amount of machine possible. Vertical take-off and landing for infantry was explored by the U.S. Army throughout the Cold War. It was mostly seen as a scouting platform, and abandoned because of a few clear limitations. One-person flying machines can, indeed, put a person over a hill, or on a rooftop, or above a treeline, but in so doing, they are loud, and they leave the human occupant exposed, and they don’t provide any armor. This is to say nothing of destabilizing recoil for a pilot operating a flyboard controller in one hand while firing a weapon from the other hand.

Small drones, with similar speeds and longer flight times, can get the same scouting information streamed to the ground control stations of remote operators, leaving the humans safe and the small craft a lot less detectable. Combat by flyboard is as fanciful as combat by jetpack, and just as unlikely.

Still, there’s more reason than just spectacle to look at why a military might seriously be interested in small flying vehicles for transporting humans. Implant Sciences, which made bomb detectors for the TSA, planned for several months in 2016 to acquire Zapata Industries, with the intent of marketing the flyboard to first responders and military customers.

That deal fell through in November 2016, and Implant Sciences was itself then acquired by L3. At present, Zapata remains privately held, though while the acquisitions did not go through, the idea of selling to the military likely persisted.

Without the rifle or the scouting implications, fast transport at low altitudes and with VTOL capability could get a specialist to people in need. When military planners look at jetbikes and hoverbikes, the consensus mission becomes one of uncrewed logistics transport and resupply, with the possibility of carrying a person mainly an option to get medics to people otherwise immobilized or inaccessible.

If there is a future for the flyboard in war, it is likely as a transportation option in a medic’s toolkit, though not one without risk. Instead, the flyboard may find its truest home in events like the Bastille Day parade, as a theatrical expression of ingenuity, divorced from any practical military utility.

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