France’s government undertook a weird publicity stunt this week with President Emmanuel Macron sharing a short video on social media of a soldier carrying a rifle while piloting a flyboard. Except the soldier wasn’t strictly speaking a French Army trooper, and he wasn’t operating a piece of Army kit.
President Macron shared a minute long video, taken during France’s annual Bastille Day, of Flyboard inventor Franky Zapata zipping over what appear to be French special operations troops. The troops are equipped with unmanned ground vehicles, a Hilux equipped with a UAV launcher, anti-drone rifles, and ATVs. Above them all Zapata, reportedly a French Army reservist himself, flew carrying a replica of a Heckler and Koch 416—France’s new assault rifle.
Fier de notre armée, moderne et innovante. pic.twitter.com/DQvIfPolQf— Emmanuel Macron (@EmmanuelMacron) July 14, 2019
Macron tagged his post with the words, “Proud of our army, modern and innovative.”
It’s not clear whether or not Zapata’s flyover means that the French Army has adopted the Flyboard. Although it looks amazing and claims a number of military uses, the Flyboard doesn't really make any sense.
The Flyboard is a gas turbine-powered platform capable of lifting a person into the air for up to ten minutes. The company claims it can be used to insert special operations forces, transfer personnel between ships at sea or to shore, conduct presence patrols, penetrate defended areas, deploy unmanned aerial systems, or even conduct recon missions over “megacities.”
The current demo model can fly at speeds of up to 140 kilometers (86 miles) per hour, reach heights of 150 meters (492 feet), and fly for six minutes with a 220 pound payload. Eventually the company claims the Flyboard will reach 124 miles an hour, an altitude of nearly 10,000 feet, and an operating time of 30 minutes with a 440 pound payload.
There are several reasons why the Flyboard will struggle to gain military buyers. For one, it would be difficult to penetrate “denied areas”—presumably manned by armed fighters—with a machine as loud as the Flyboard. A person on a Flyboard is totally exposed in the air, with no cover, and is therefore an easy target. A Flyboard would also be an easy target for shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles, which would home in on the heat exhaust of the turbine engine.
The company advertises it as a great vantage point to conduct reconnaissance of megacities, giving a person a bird’s eye view of the world below. Unfortunately there’s a corollary to that, and that’s that the higher pilots goes, the more people can see them—and fire.
The Flyboard is a great idea but it’s basically a drone with a person attached. Removing the person makes the drone much smaller, more difficult to detect, and allows it to move faster and fly longer without putting a soldier in harm's way. And the good news? We already have drones that can do that.
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