By John Jeffay, NoCamels
A startup in Israel is launching what it describes as the world’s first completely hands-free underwater “smart scooter.”
KikFin has produced a jetpack with fins that straps onto a swimmer’s back and propels them though the water faster than Olympic champion Michael Phelps.
It also attaches to surfboards, helping beginners as they learn to catch a wave.
Swimmers have always welcomed an underwater boost – ever since sailors first adapted torpedoes during World War II.
Technology has moved on since then, and there’s now a huge range of sea scooters (also known as diver propulsion vehicles) on the market.
They provide an extra oomph for amateur snorkellers and professional scuba divers alike.
But the one big drawback has always been that swimmers have to hold tight to the handles as they’re pulled through water. Until now.
Amihay Mines, CEO of KikFin, says his jetpack is a game changer, not just because it frees up the user’s hands, but also because it “bio-mimics” dolphins and other mammals.
The hydrodynamic wings allow the swimmer to change direction with the slightest movement of their head.
“It literally feels like you’re flying underwater,” Mines tells NoCamels. “The water just flows all over your body.”
Swimmers also control the five-speed motor remotely controlled with a glove that responds to a push of their finger.
KikFin incorporates specially developed wireless technology, currently used only by the military, that allows communication through both air and water.
It also comes with a safety feature that can limit the swimmer’s depth or distance from their start point, and an app that tracks their speed, location and performance.
It will be aimed initially at recreational users when it launches commercially early next year.
But Mines says it will also offer huge advantages to professional divers in any sphere – oil and gas rigs, rescue services, fish farms, the military and beyond – who needs to use their hands.
Kateryna Sadurska from Ukraine, the freediving world champion, tried the KikFin.
“It brings an amazing feeling,” she said. “Your arms are free, you don’t need to use your fins. It’s much easier to do safety and enjoy being underwater and feel yourself like a water angel.”
Mines was a keen surfer growing up near Palmahim beach, in central Israel. He studied mechanical engineering at university, where he started working on an early version of the KikFin.
At the time, it was designed to fit onto a surfboard, opening up a new world to surfers with disabilities through a group called Wave-ability.
“My passion was to see people with disabilities take the control and enjoy the thrill and the excitement of catching a wave,” he says.
“I designed that fin with a professor of hydrodynamic in my university, creating a thruster to attach to a surfboard.”
The next step was to modify the fin for able-bodied swimmers, giving them extra speed and agility.
It was a long process of trial and error. “It took four years of working from six in the morning until two at night,” he says. “Countless underwater machines broke or let water in. More than 1,000 fins went into the garbage.”
Eventually Mines and his small team, based in Tel Aviv, perfected the KikFin. “It’s literally a dream come true,” he says. “I was flying underwater in my dreams, and now I’m doing it for real.
“When people see me on the beach with the KikFin and realize it’s a proper working product they get so excited and want to know when they can buy one.
“There are many underwater scooters on the market but there isn’t that’s anything like as sophisticated or as much fun.”
Different versions of KikFin are available. For swimmers and surfers it is worn as a vest, and for surfers and stand up paddleboarders (SUP), it fits on their board.
It provides a particularly useful boost for beginners, who often give up because they can’t otherwise gain enough speed to catch a wave.
KikFin propels users underwater at 9km an hour and on the surface at up to 12km an hour. An average swimmer can manage 3km an hour. Michael Phelps, winner of 28 Olympic swimming medals, achieved 8.8km an hour when he broke the world record for 100 meters butterfly.
The device works at depths of 40 meters and has an hour of power at full speed and uses a rechargeable battery that can be changed underwater.
It’s been tested in over 5,000 hours of underwater swimming at Eilat, Israel’s Red Sea resort, with 50 testers aged 12 to 80.
There is another device currently on the market, Cudajet, which is also a hands-free jetpack. Mines says it doesn’t have the wings that make his device so maneuverable, or the underwater wireless control.