The military is working to develop a Star Wars-style "hoverbike" that uses a motorcycle engine and small rotors to soar up to 9,000 feet high.

A British startup firm and a U.S. defense contractor are working with the Army Research Laboratory in Maryland to test a prototype aircraft that could transform the way U.S. troops operate in difficult terrain. The aircraft could be available for procurement within three to five years, a company official said.

The aircraft is designed to carry a single pilot and fly at a range and altitude similar to a traditional small helicopter. But it's small size and potential maneuverability mean it could operate in far tighter spaces than a larger rotor-wing aircraft.

"The Army is looking at using it … close to the ground. So we are looking at technology to make sure it's safe in that kind of environment," said Mark Butkiewicz, manager of applied technology at Survice [CQ] Engineering, a Maryland-based company working on the project.

"In some cases, the lower altitude is more challenging because you have to make sure you can maneuver around objects and debris and buildings," Butkiewicz said in an interview with Defense News, which is owned by the same company as Military Times.

A military variant of the aircraft could carry up to 400 to 800 pounds of cargo, said Grant Stapleton, a sales director for the British firm, Malloy Aeronautics.

The aircraft is equipped with sensors that allow it to fly manned or unmanned. The rotors spin inside a circular space enclosed by metal rims and strong wire mesh, a key safety measure that prevents rotors from striking objects when operating in smaller spaces.

One prototype on display at the Paris Air Show in June used a BMW motorcycle engine. The manual controls are configured similar to a motor bike: A throttle is on the right handle bar, a helicopter-pilot's pitch control is on the left hand grip; turning the handlebars allows a pilot to roll the aircraft and a brake-like hand lever would control the yaw, or movement along the vertical axis, Stapleton told Defense News.

The two companies are working with the Army to move into "Phase Two" development of tests and evaluation and could be ready for procurement by the military services within three to five years, Butkiewicz said.

The hoverbike's prototypes and their demonstration videos online bear a strong resemblance to the small speeder-bike aircraft featured in Star Wars movies.

A commercial version of the Malloy hoverbike might be available to the public at a price similar to "a top of the range" sport utility vehicle or an "executive car," Stapleton said.

The aircraft is designed to have a range and capability similar to a traditional helicopter. It could be uniquely effective in humanitarian operations when its unmanned capability could be tapped for logistical support.

"This is an extraordinary platform for being able to ship small, light inexpensive helicopters into a disaster zone and being able to deploy a lot of doctors into a lot of remote areas. You could put a doctor on the ground and the drone could run back and forth with supplies like food, water," Stapleton said.

Andrew Tilghman is the executive editor for Military Times. He is a former Military Times Pentagon reporter and served as a Middle East correspondent for the Stars and Stripes. Before covering the military, he worked as a reporter for the Houston Chronicle in Texas, the Albany Times Union in New York and The Associated Press in Milwaukee.

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