People have been pretending to fly X-Wings since 1977, and now, thanks to a company called Propel, that fantasy is taking the next leap. The company manufactures remote-controlled products including a whole slew of unmanned aerial vehicle toys, and their new line of Star Wars drones is unlike anything anyone has ever built before. With devices that come in X-wing, TIE fighter, and Imperial speeder bike designs, the company is trying to usher in a whole new era of drone gaming. They work as stand-alone devices, but the real appeal of Propel’s tech is the ability to be able to battle against one another in real life, no assembly required.
Inverse spoke to Jack Bishop, Propel’s head development pilot, about developing new Star Wars tech and how they’re trying to make drones into something more than just throwaway toys.
What was the design process like, and how did you want to set these drones apart?
We came up with the concepts nearly two years ago, and we outlined the very specific needs we wanted from these drones: They had to fly incredibly well and give the consumer an all-around magical experience. But they also had to look like the actual ships from the films.
The problem is that those ships aren’t designed to fly in our world. They’re off-balance and the weight is distributed in the complete wrong way. The TIE fighter design is like trying to make a dinner plate fly correctly. So my biggest concern with the technology was the relationship between the way the drone spins and its banking angle. They didn’t quite match up correctly, so when you apply that to the Star Wars drones you see that they really carve a line when they fly like they do in the films. Beforehand they kind of just spun off or drifted around corners.
What did you do to match those lofty tech and design ambitions while still making them recognizable Star Wars ships?
To make up for the design flaws and quirks we’ve programmed each drone individually. We also incorporated the invention of reverse propulsion technology — or having the blades underneath the drones — and were able to divert the eyes to take in the beauty of the ship itself rather than what makes it fly. The blades are also clear plastic to make them disappear as they spin.
The reverse propulsion brought new challenges with the flight control system too, like when developing the early version of the Millennium Falcon design. Whenever it would fly forward it would catch the air and not fly right. Given its position in the Star Wars universe, it had to be a little bit bigger than the X-wing or TIE fighter, and a little bit faster as well.
The Falcon was intended to be released this year, and even though we got it to a very good working prototype the setbacks we encountered with that ship forced us to push it back to next year. It’ll give that ship its own big release worthy of the ship, but also let us perfect it.
Beyond them just being Star Wars drones, when did you realize you wanted them to be able to battle in real-life dogfights?
Battling with drones is a brand new notion, and to attach that to Star Wars just works very well. We were the pioneers behind infrared drone battling, and originally we had a couple of helicopter products that had infrared battling capabilities. Then Carl England, who is a VP of licensing for Disney, was brought on board to look at our products. He saw these laser battling helicopters and wanted to incorporate it somewhere, which is how Star Wars came about.
Introducing any new technology is difficult, so getting the Star Wars license seems like the perfect way to introduce new tech to the masses.
It adds to the appeal of the products, but what Star Wars brings to the technology is a story. There’s a reason behind battling each other. You’re not just challenging other people to win. The basic idea is that you choose a side to fight for — the Rebellion or the Empire — and if you’re a Star Wars fan you’re really invested in a side you want to win.
Drones look cool, but 99 percent of them are just four rotors and bits in between. These are the first beautiful drones that I’ve ever seen. They’re truly like flying diecast models, and people have a small sense of pride owning something like that.
What experience will people have flying alone as opposed to requiring others for dogfights?
Nearly 100 percent of the drone market so far has been a single player thing, other than drone racing. Flying a drone on its own is an enjoyable hobby, and it’s exactly like RC cars, but that’s only frontwards, backwards, left and right motion. With drones you’re really involved in a 3D space, which I think is enough of an experience for people to want to try and get better and better.
We also plan on introducing add-on products that are all about making the one-player experience more interesting, like an app that will be released later this year that connects to a bluetooth module in the controller to record your real life battle scores. We’re just waiting for the okay from Disney, Apple, and Android to put it on the market. As you win battles and score critical hits, your rank increases. We’re hoping it encourages players to get out there with their friends and fight to be at the top of a worldwide leaderboard. We’re hoping that’s where the product really comes alive.
You can reserve Propel’s Star Wars drones for a limited release in 2016 before a wide release in 2017. Each of the star-fighters will retail for $239.99.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity