SkyRunner MK 3.2 flying buggy launches in the sky and dirt
Believe it or not, the world plays host to more than one off-road buggy that can tear up the dirt, then go airborne to fly from point to point. There's the Maverick flying car, and now there's the SkyRunner MK 3.2, itself an independently designed and engineered successor to the Parajet Skycar. The SkyRunner can rip over the ground at speeds up to 70 mph (113 km/h), then shoot through the air at up to 52 mph (84 km/h) with a separate drive system. And now it can be yours ... for a price. We chatted with SkyRunner founder and CEO Stewart Hamel to learn more about the ins and outs of the newly redesigned air-ATV.
Hamel first became acquainted with British outfit Parajet Automotive while serving on the board of Oxford University's Saïd Business School. Through his investment company, he struck an agreement with Parajet to underwrite the design, testing, certification and production of a flying ATV to be named SkyRunner. From that agreement, the original SkyRunner made its soft debut in 2013, and reservations opened.
We haven't heard much about the SkyRunner since 2013, but that doesn't mean nothing's been happening. In fact, a whole lot has happened in those two and a half years. Parajet and SkyRunner have gone their separate ways, the former now advertising the SkyQuad, which appears to be closely related to the 2013 SkyRunner, if not the exact design. For its part, SkyRunner moved on from that design after an intensive research and development effort based entirely in the US. What's resulted is a completely new machine.
The new SkyRunner MK 3.2 had an official coming out party at the 2016 Palm Beach International Boat Show in March. If that sounds like a strange place to debut a vehicle that drives on earth and air but not water, Hamel assures that there was no better audience than boat show goers – affluent folks willing to spend heartily on big, expensive toys.
So, what's new since our last story? Virtually everything. The SkyRunner design has been reworked from the ground up based on feedback received during market evaluation, including from reservation holders, potential customers and the US Department of Defense.
"The way SkyRunner was built was sort of a wisdom of crowds," Hamel explains. "It wasn't any unilateral vision. It was ... what do people want? What does the world want; what do they like? That one-seater, it was a tough sell, man. A one-seat, hundred-thousand-dollar anything is a tough sell."
So SkyRunner doubled the seating capacity, creating a tandem. More importantly, it doubled the number of engines, dropping the single 1.0-liter Ford EcoBoost in favor of a dual-engine setup with one ground engine and one air engine, both fed by the same 93 octane fuel.
"Most great automotive engines do not make good aircraft engines, and most great aircraft engines don't make good automotive engines," Hamel says. "SkyRunner now possesses two engines, allowing each engine to do what it does best."
An 89-hp ProStar 1000 four-stroke twin-cylinder engine drives the rear wheels (4WD is optional) through a continuously variable transmission (CVT) to get the SkyRunner rolling on the ground. When the driver yearns for a little more open-air freedom, he or she spends about five minutes attaching the parawing and readying for flight, then fires the Rotax 912 ULS engine up to drive the propeller in back.
The SkyRunner doesn't require a conventional runway, making runways out of areas like open fields and beaches. It needs between 250 and 500 (76 to 152 m) feet to take off and land, and takeoff speed is around 35 mph (56 km/h). It can be piloted to a maximum regulated altitude of 10,000 feet (3,048 m) and speeds up to 52 mph. Range on 16 gallons (60.5L) of gas is 240 miles (386 km) on the ground and 120 nautical miles (222 km) in the air.
"This [two-engine design] equates to superior reliability, serviceability, lower maintenance, operational simplicity, safety and redundancy," says Hamel. "Break an axle, no problem. Lose your rear differential, no problem. Lose an entire engine, no problem."
Some of those "no problems" are because you can fly your way out of some ground issues (e.g. blow the ground engine and fly out) and drive your way out of some air system problems, but some are because of benefits that the dual-engine design offers on the ground. For instance, if the drive wheels won't move the vehicle, the driver can use the propeller to accelerate forward, no winching required.
"We're finding that we've never had to use all-wheel drive. I've gotten the thing stuck in the sand dunes; I just turned on the prop and pushed myself out," Hamel recounts. "I can go faster on the ground with that propeller than I can with the ground engine."
Hamel makes clear that using the propeller for ground propulsion is a backup option only and the SkyRunner isn't designed to be operated regularly via propeller. Refer back to the whole aircraft engines being bad at ground work point.
If you're wondering what happens if the engine quits in the air, the answer is that you use the parachute to navigate safely to the ground. Powered parachutes are considered a very safe way of flying.
While full of operational advantages, a two-engine system adds a bunch of weight, as does an extra seat and burlier build. So in addition to designing the dual powertrains and reworking the suspension and steering, SkyRunner's main work over the last couple years has been in executing an obsessive weight-savings program, cutting the fat wherever possible. That's resulted in the removal of fiberglass and aluminum body panels in favor of carbon fiber and the shaving of weight off the tubular chassis.
All told, the new-and-improved, production-ready SkyRunner lists in at 1,080 lb (490 kg), about 150 lb (68 kg) more than the 926 lb (420 kg) the original one-seat SkyRunner was listed at in 2013 (and the Parajet SkyQuad continues to be listed at today). The SkyRunner has a 78-in (1,981-mm) wheelbase and 15 in (38 cm) of ground clearance.
One of the most interesting and unexpected parts of our conversation with Hamel was the discussion about the SkyRunner MK 3.2's work ethic. Looking at the photos and videos of the soaring buggy kicking up sand and cruising high above cliffs and canyons, it's easy to think of it as nothing more than a crazy toy with no practical side. In fact, Hamel was thinking something along those lines when he first approached the project, looking forward to riding the hell out of it around his ranch. He didn't necessarily expect to be talking about its potential as an outdoor workhorse, but that was another point brought forward during his R&D conversations with various market demographics.
"In the beginning, [interest] was all recreation," Hamel tells us. "Then it overlapped ... people that had a lot of money generally had a lot of land. Then they saw it as a toy and a tool."
So SkyRunner moved forward with both work and play in mind. And by work, we're not talking only military special ops and James Bond-style chase scenes. Hamel pitches the SkyRunner as a way of performing more everyday work tasks, jobs that would otherwise require a helicopter.
"Operational costs are below $50/hour," he says. "The market has translated SkyRunner into a tool for short range tasks that could substitute a helicopter at 1/10th to 1/30th the cost and fly in nearly the same wind conditions. Too windy, no problem – it will drive a pipeline faster than a grounded helicopter – rain or shine. Plus learning to fly as a sport pilot can happen in days with any level employee, minimum wage to CEO."
Of course, he makes a point to mention that those businesses would also have a pretty sweet means of entertaining clients on the weekends.
So work and play, land and air ... what about water? SkyRunner actually rendered the airboat conversion concept above after some yacht owners expressed interest in transporting the SkyRunner from yacht to private, uninhabited island (good work, if you can find it). The military also expressed interest in the idea of a boat conversion, but for now, SkyRunner is concentrating on building and selling a vehicle that it believes offers a top-notch experience on land and air. It doesn't seem confident that a boat kit would perform at the same high level.
The SkyRunner has conquered snow with its wheels swapped out for tracks, though.
SkyRunner has started production at its Louisiana facility and gotten deliveries underway, including a model that Hamel describes as an extreme 007 variant with synthetic vision, head-up display, rock lights, sand tires and tracks. The company is in the process of ramping up production to 10 units a month and plans to begin a more concerted marketing effort. It's also working on getting its Special Light-Sport Aircraft (SLSA) certification, which Hamel tells us will mean the difference between selling the SkyRunner to customers as an amateur build and selling a complete factory-built vehicle.
In terms of what you need to do to get licensed and start flying, SkyRunner explains:
A license to fly SkyRunner can be obtained in days with only 12 hours of flight with a Certified Flight Instructor (which SkyRunner and its partner network offers). Requirements for licensing include a valid driver's license and a minimum age of 17. If applicants are in good health, an FAA medical certificate is not required. Sport pilot regulations will allow flight in daytime, VFR weather in uncontrolled airspace with a ceiling of 10,000 feet above sea level.
If US$139,000 sounds like a crazy amount of money for a toy like a flying ATV, take a good watch of the 30-second teaser video below and see if it doesn't look just a little more reasonable after you're done.