We Talked to the Guy Who Flies Around on a Giant Drone That He Built Himself

"I like to think that I'm more of a superhero than a villain."

Jul 6 by Dan Robitzski
Hunter Kowald via YouTube

Last month, a mysterious man shocked New Yorkers and the world as he soared over Times Square on what appeared to be a giant drone — something approaching a real-life hoverboard, and which drew immediate comparison to the fictional Spider-Man villain, the Green Goblin.

The man was Hunter Kowald, and he says the drone-like vehicle is his own design and creation that he calls the SkySurfer.

Kowald’s online presence portrays him as a bit of a daredevil, using his creation to pull off stunts designed to go viral, like a rooftop McDonald’s delivery. But in an interview, his bona fide engineering chops shine through, as does the level of care he put into building a vehicle that can be safe, fun, and perhaps even save lives.

We tracked Kowald down and asked him what it’s like to design, build, and soar through the sky on a hoverboard. Here’s our conversation, edited for length and clarity.

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Futurism: I assume you have a prior engineering background to be able to do this. Can you talk a little bit about that and how it actually turned into this SkySurfer project?

Hunter Kowald: I studied mechanical engineering and engineering sciences along with math, and then after I got my degree, I did a little bit of business. So I’ve kind of been all over the place. After that, I went straight into the workforce and always had an interest in startups. I’m very entrepreneurial. And this is a project that I’ve been working on for a long time now, for sure. I guess I’ve always had an interest in the art of flight.

It’s been probably about two years that I’ve been working on it. Definitely been toying with the idea before that, but I was just doing all the math and kind of like making sure it works on paper before, you know, pushing it forward. Obviously it’s really expensive and it’s a safety thing too so I wanted to make sure I dotted all the “i”‘s. That’s been the past two years. The past eight months, I’ve been full-time on it. So pretty much nonstop, just trying to get to the point where I was able to, you know, start flying.

What I like to say is it’s the most powerful, smallest ultralight aircraft that you can stand on and fly around with. Definitely one of the safest too because, again, there’s a lot of thought and engineering put into it. So I can have, for example, two motor sails to land safely. The signals are redundant. That’s something that I learned throughout the process of designing this thing. For example, when you take it outside, that little tiny bit of condensation that is building up on the electronics fried it at one point. That was a failure that I had that was like, well, I need to make sure I take every step possible that I know that could fail and make sure that it’s covered. If something goes out, something catches fire, it’ll switch over to the other without any latency issues. It consumes a ton of power to be able to fly in such a small form factor. And that’s the biggest obstacle that everybody else has faced who’s tried to do it. It’s either going to catch on fire or you have to design custom components to be able to crank that much voltage and current into it to be able to get this power. If a motor fails, the tips in the propellers will spin faster than the speed of sound to be able to compensate for that.

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One of the first videos I posted just went completely viral. And then it was like, okay, well, I need to make sure I’m taking advantage of all this hype that’s going on around it. I like to think that it’s a little bit of a cheat code to the internet. And it’s also helped fund the business too. A lot of brands have reached out to be able to incorporate this thing into movies, films. Netflix reached out, things like that, in order to try to incorporate this into their world too.

There are a lot of different industries that can take and use this. My goal is to get these in the hands of everybody so they can be used on a daily basis. It’s definitely a fun thing to have. A lot of people want to purchase them just for that purpose. Just to have it, you know, and take it out every once in a while and cruise around. It’s pretty interesting whenever you have that control and be able to fly around. I’d love to see it in transportation and then also emergency situations like fire rescue and stuff like that. I just feel there’s so much opportunity because it’s very quick to jump on and then you’ve got a lot of power and control to be able to go to where you need to go.

That seems like a short time to build something like this. At what point did you actually feel comfortable strapping in and testing it out? What did you need to see to actually trust it to transport you?

HK: Yes, a lot of people don’t realize the amount of time that I’ve actually put into this. So even though I say, for example, “eight months at it full-time,” it’s been 15, 16-hour days, sometimes. Especially the past two months, it’s just been around the clock. It’s not something that I take breaks away from because I’m trying to take advantage of the opportunity that’s here.

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As for when it comes to flying itself, I took it really slow. But for some reason, I never doubted it. I think it’s because it worked on paper. You know, I did all the CAD, engineering, I did all the finite element analysis, flow analysis on the computer to make sure it all works. And then at that point, it was like, “Okay, as long as I design according to this and I just take all the safety steps so that way, whenever I do take off, I do feel comfortable that I’m covered. I should be good to go.” For example, when it comes to heat management, one of the bottlenecks that I was thinking about was the solder, which is the metallic compound that holds the wires together. And it was like, “Okay, well, I need to make sure that that’s going to be able to withstand all the heat that I need, or withstand the heat that we built from this current running through it to power this thing.” And so I even had to go down the periodic table and try and figure out which elements can stand the most heat. And of course, there are some things you can buy off the shelf. But it was one of the things where I need something extremely light and something that can withstand the heat.

After considering all those little things, I just felt comfortable with standing on it. Of course it felt a little iffy and strange at first, especially because whatever you’re within maybe three feet from the ground you actually have the ground force that’s pushing back at you. Some of the first helicopters that ever flew, they could only fly near the ground because they used that ground force to push back. And that just causes a really crazy and unstable flight. So it was probably a month of me going out, flying it, coming back down and just repeating back and forth until finally at some point I was able to take off a little bit and I started bouncing. And then once I finally reached about three or four feet off the ground, that’s when I noticed, “Wow, this is perfectly stable; it’s not shaking anymore.” It just went from something that felt a little iffy to all of a sudden it was just like you’re standing on the ground on a piece of wood.

So it’s extremely stable and over time I’ve developed full control of it to where I’ve flown inside multiple houses, very tight spaces. Once we designed this carbon-fiber structure, then I tested it at like 1.5-times safety factor, which is typical for an aircraft. And that just means that, you know, it’s calculated to be able to lift 500 pounds so let’s test it and load it with 750 pounds. I’m just trying to make sure I take every step possible to be really careful with it, both for my sake and also as a product too, delivering out to other people, making sure that it’s safe and they feel comfortable with it.

Right. Making sure someone who hasn’t run all the numbers has that same comfort.

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HK: Exactly. I don’t think I would jump on this thing if I didn’t design and build it and put every single wire together by hand because any little tiny cut in a wire could short the frame. Carbon fiber, at least the stuff that we’ve designed, conducts electricity. And so I’ve had wires short out on the frames before from applying too much pressure. It’s like, well, that can happen anywhere, especially since I came from the manufacturing world I can understand where failures can happen. As you repeat processes over and over again, it’s very easy for things like that to go wrong.

You mentioned that once you get a couple feet off the ground, it feels a lot more stable. I can assume most people don’t know what the sensation of flying is like. Can you talk about what it actually physically feels like to be flying around? Is it like surfing?

HK: I’ve always been into snowboarding. So that, I think, has helped me develop a little bit of a balance where I think it’s probably easier for me to learn than it would be for somebody else.

But, yeah, when it comes to the actual flying sensation itself, I like to think that it’s pretty much like snowboarding or surfing. It honestly does feel like you’re standing on the ground once you get up there and you’re comfortable with it. The only thing that took me a while to understand was managing the wind that was flying around me. For example, if you’re driving down the road and you stick your hand out of the car window, that wind is going to shift it around. It’s the same thing for me. I’m in a 500-pound wind tunnel as this air is flowing around me in every direction possible. So I stick my hand out, that’s going to definitely shift it and cause me to twist around.

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And so it’s a balance of having a little bit of balance from my previous experience snowboarding and also in my controller — a lot of people don’t realize that I’ve actually put accelerometers into there. So that way, if I were to twist the controller in one direction, it’s tuned to be able to shift the aircraft a little bit in that way. But most of it is very slight and I’ve definitely turned it off over time because I’ve noticed in the testing phases, which was one of the scarier parts — understanding stabilization and how much it actually matters, whether you’re top-heavy and you’re standing on something like that — you really don’t want to have the thing fighting back at you and trying to take control. So that’s when, you know, the whole idea of “Let’s control it with a controller in my right hand as it twists and turns and see if that is a little bit easier” comes into play.

Now I can hold perfectly still and not have any issues at all. My thing now is trying to get as much speed as I possibly can. But it’s just a matter of feeling comfortable with it, you know.

Forgetting the physical nature of it, this is human flight. What emotions are coming to you? What’s going through your head?

HK: It’s a bizarre feeling for sure, especially after having worked on it for so long. Part of my motivation was I didn’t want to work like a typical desk job. I’ve always wanted to start my own business to be an entrepreneur. I did a desk job for like four years. And it was just very, very boring to me. I didn’t enjoy it. And, you know, I always looked forward to the day that I could make this product work. I’d go out for lunch, I’d be running down the road and think it would be really cool if I could fly down instead.

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Now that it’s getting to the point where I do have that full control and I can easily spin around and turn around and do stuff like that, that’s when it really starts to feel like, “Wow.” Having the ability to control your altitude is a feeling on its own. That’s probably the biggest part.

To get tangible again, you were talking about accelerometers in the controller versus in the actual SkySurfer itself. How much of steering is Segway-like versus manually from the controller? What are the actual steps that you need to learn?

HK: You don’t want it to control itself as much as you’d think because there are so many outside varying factors that change everything. So, for example, if my upper body has shifted 10 degrees to the left, that’s going to substantially change how the thing is flying. In reality, the aircraft needs to be tuned and calibrated. And then once it’s tuned and calibrated in a proper setting with no wind conditions, maybe a proper wind tunnel of sorts, that’s when you can say, “Okay, now you can start to crank up that stabilization a little bit.”

But the problem is you don’t want to be shifted sideways all of the sudden. I constantly have to keep telling myself the same things like, “Okay, well, wait a second, why am I shifting left?” I have to check my left hand. I’ve got to check my upper body, make sure I’m not turned to the right too much. You really don’t want it fighting too much outside of that. It was definitely a long process to tune it to be able to control it in just the right manner.

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I want to jump into some of the applications you mentioned. I assumed this was something for hobbyists. But you were talking about Netflix and emergency response. I’m curious where else this is going, in your view.

HK: Yeah, when it comes to stuff like movies and media, this is completely unexpected. It’s just kind of happened as the world has found out about this thing. You know, there’s a lot of cases where CGI doesn’t necessarily do enough justice to be able to get really good shots that people need, so I’ve been reached out to by these people to be able to both mount cameras to it and then also be incorporated into movies. Apparently, there are these scripts that are already well-written and being developed right now on the concept of flying around on hoverboards.

Personally, I’m always thinking “How can we impact society in a little bit of a better way,” so an example I like to give is with lifeguarding. It takes forever to get out of the water, especially on the beach. And if you have one of these things sitting there, charged up and ready to go, you could jump on it and be out there in seconds. With all the custom components that I designed, it was a matter of “How can we lift as much weight as possible and have all this power?” And so I think I over-engineered it where now I can lift an insane amount of weight. Of course, obviously, that kills how much flight time you have. But in a situation where you need to go lift somebody or something, you can do that for a short period. So I’d like to see it used in something like that. I think there’s a lot of use for fire and rescue, fire safety, things like that.

As more people get their hands on it, we want to make sure that they don’t hurt themselves and that they understand the risks. You can’t just give one of these out to someone. For example, the jet packs that you see, they do sell them but they can’t just hand them out because obviously if it’s in the wrong hands, somebody’s going to fly into a wall.

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Can you just help me picture how a beach rescue or disaster response would work? I mean, you have these propellers spinning at Mach-whatever speeds, right? It seems difficult for an operator to grab someone.

HK: Yeah. I’ve kind of played around with the concept a little bit where you have a chain or something hanging from the bottom of the landing configuration. You’ve got to have something sticking down there, so it’s a matter of hooking something up to that. So I’ve hooked it up to where I’ve been able to deploy things and drop stuff off of it. A good idea might be an inner tube if you are out at the beach or something like that. And then other than that, I’ve actually hung chains from it to be able to grab items and lift them up.

Are you at the point where you can manufacture these or are you still figuring that out? How far along is the progress bar?

HK: Yeah, they’re building right now, but it’s a matter of how we can get more efficient with it. Coming from manufacturing myself, I kind of understand how it’s not really too sustainable to do one-offs and just keep giving them out that way. What we need to do is build them side by side in parallel and manufacture to where we can do a large drop all at the same time. It’s probably about six months or something to be able to do a drop of a bunch of these and just give them out to a lot of people. It’s definitely been a battle trying to make sure I find the right resources to be able to do it. And of course, it’s all got to be cost-effective, because I’m not some massive corporation with a bunch of VC funding.

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I’d love to talk about some of the videos too. I’m so curious about what sort of steps you need to take before filming one of those. For instance, I assume McDonald’s knew you were going to be on the roof, right? Are there permits involved? How much pre-planning happens?

HK: There’s a lot involved. I think I’ll probably start explaining more of that process as it gets further in. I’ve always been told that these videos are about, you know, the surprise value of it. For example, when these Hollywood movies are created, they’re not showing all the background work. I think I’m definitely going to be showing that a little bit more in the future.

But yeah, there’s definitely a lot of pre-planning because, you know, the safety side of it. You don’t want people trying these things. There’s a lot of regulation in place to where you can do these things. I mean, if somebody were to build one of these and take it out and fly on the road, it’s like, “No, you can’t do that.” I’ll make sure I set a good example and, you know, push forward in the right way.

There are steps that need to be taken. There are permits, you’ve got to check airspace, you’ve got to be in contact with traffic control towers if you’re inside certain spaces. You’ve got to check with the city. And also, I always like to have personnel there for the safety side of it. Some shoots will have medics, we’ll have worker’s compensation if anyone does get hurt. It’ll go as far as that just to make sure that everybody is covered. And personnel to block off areas because everything has to be a closed course, too. That’s pretty much it.

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Do you deal with the FAA? You’re kind of creating a new category of transport and bringing it into the public. I mean, is this classified as aircraft? Is it similar to drone regulations?

HK: Yeah, definitely. I’m in contact with everybody, and it’s considered an ultra-light aircraft, so there are regulations based around that. But it is very new and I think it’s exciting to be a leader in pushing it forward. I look forward to hopefully helping to narrow down some of these regulations change them and morph them into something that makes a little more sense based off of this technology.

Because it’s so new, some of these regulations are based on, like, you know, paramotorists, those guys who fly around in parachutes with motors on their backs. They’re required to be able to land in emergency situations. And now it’s like, okay, we need to prove those concepts in mine to be able to help change some of the regulations or at least, you know, find a way for this to be able to be used in certain situations. Pushing this forward in the right way is definitely the top priority, of course. I’m in this for the long run, obviously, and I want to make sure all the checks and balances are there.

Is there anything else you want to add?

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HK: It’s worth noting that the whole intention for the YouTube videos is to document the process. I look forward to talking about it a little bit more and kind of explaining things as it gets further, because a lot of people ask the same questions. And obviously, those are things that are of interest to the public. And I’d like to think that I’ll be putting the journey on there and they can follow along as they like to and have some fun with it, you know, the good and the bad. But I guess pretty much covers it.

As this whole thing’s progressed, it’s funny how all the different misinformation has popped up here and there so I’m hoping it gets more and more clarified and nailed down. But it’s just one of those things because it happened so fast. There’s no control.

That’s digital media, right? Headline: “Actual Green Goblin Appears in Times Square.”

HK: Yeah, yeah. People are trying to put a little bit more of a dramatic effect too, which I really don’t necessarily like too much. But I like to think that I’m more of a superhero than a villain.

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More on Hunter Kowald: Video Shows Man Flying Through Times Square on Giant Drone


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