The War on Terror is about to get quieter. Since the 1980s, U.S. Special Forces have been traversing enemy villages, mountains, and back roads on loud, rugged motorcycles like the Kawasaki KLR 650 (or, in some cases, on cheap dirt bikes they've bought from locals). But the military has recently decided it needs a stealthier, faster bike. Last summer, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) solicited proposals for a new off-road, hybrid electric motorcycle – one that would both improve fuel efficiency and enhance, in the government's words, "the element of surprise" in combat. When Silicon Valley bikemaker BRD unveils its newly commissioned motorcycle (possibly later this year), it will reshape covert ops – and its groundbreaking technology may soon be available commercially in the U.S. "The old Kawasaki is a real workhorse – it's the bike you want when the zombies come," says Marc Fenigstein, CEO of BRD. "But 30 years of motorcycle design have now made new [bike materials] smaller, lighter – and still just as strong."
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This past April, the government awarded a development contract reportedly worth $100,000 to defense and energy company Logos Technologies, which subcontracted with the four-year-old BRD, a cutting-edge firm creating electric motorcycles with 10-pound engines that can cover 50 miles in a single charge. Together, the two are reworking BRD's $15,000 RedShift electric motorcycle technology into a hybrid electric model powered by both battery and fuel (it will work with diesel, regular gas, or jet fuel). The bike will be able to travel more than 100 miles before refueling or recharging, it will act as a portable generator, and it will have all-wheel drive. The motorcycle won't be stealth as in invisible – but it will be lighter (under 250 pounds) and quieter (under 15 decibels in electric mode, about as loud as rustling leaves). The last two features are particularly key selling points, since bikes are usually transported by helicopter or plane and are dropped off about 50 miles from their mission site. "A motorcycle can go pretty much anywhere you can walk, but if you'd like to use it to get in and out of a mission, you clearly have to quiet the system," says Wade Pulliam, manager of advanced concepts at Logos. "When you're on battery-only drive, you'll now be able to get around towns that would otherwise have raised alarms at your presence, then close in on the target, and get back in 50 miles – all in one night. You can move small teams deep behind lines to strike targets that don't think they can be touched." Soldiers will also be able to walk the more lightweight bike by powering only the front wheel, making it easier to maneuver up mountains or hills.
The Defense Department, which isn't publicly commenting on the plans, hasn't disclosed how many models it will need or where they'll be used. But Fenigstein plans for the technology to be available soon in the company's U.S.-market dirt bikes: "If it didn't eventually apply to our consumer products, we wouldn't have pursued it." The idea of the hybrid electric model is already appealing to soldiers who have fought in terrorism hot spots around the world. "The sound of the tires rolling on the ground is louder than the bike itself, and to have that ability to crawl along with electricity is great," says Michael Golembesky, a former member of the Marine Corps Special Operations Command, who has so far only heard about the project. "And this one runs on different types of fuel, so you can siphon off low-grade gas from a vehicle – there aren't too many charging stations in Afghanistan."