Last summer, Hobie once again took kayak propulsion to a new level with the release of the MirageDrive 360. The unique fin drive can spin 360 degrees to push the kayak in any direction. Behind the project, Hobie designer Philip Dow invested years of his time and hours of energy into developing the drive and fitting it into the flagship ProAngler kayak. We asked Dow to share the story behind this revolutionary invention.
“I started designing the MirageDrive 360 back in 2012. I was aware that the patent on our original drive was going to be ending in seven years, and while we had some tricks up our sleeve to stay at the top with our current MirageDrive (square top fins, kick-ups, and 180), I knew we would start to have some competition.
Greg Ketterman designed the original MirageDrive in the late 90s, and I didn’t start working for Hobie until 2005. Until 2012, I’d never really studied the drive, breaking down how it worked, and how it could be different. It was just a great staple product to me. Once I did, I realized that if I rearranged the routing of the four vertical wires that transmit the power from the cranks to the fins, I could use a pair or bearing rings to decouple the lower unit of the drive from the cranks, allowing it to spin.
While this was the biggest breakthrough, the real challenge was turning the concept into a robust product, and designing a steering system to control the drive. I didn’t want to limit the ability of the drive to turn infinitely in either direction, so the steering system also needed to be able to do this. While I tried a lot of different options, I eventually used a timing belt.
The steering system also has a really neat clutch system. This little device, located next to the drive in the Mirage well, locks the drive in position. When the user turns the 360 handle, the clutch releases, allowing the lower unit of the drive to turn. Another major challenge was completing the patent. Working with our patent attorneys to properly detail the invention was a massive project and took several years. The end result is an extremely strong patent, and ended up being 72 pages long.
I lined up all of the remaining prototypes the other day, and it’s interesting to see how much the drive grew from the original proof of concept. This increase in size made everything stronger, and decreased the load on the cables. While the 360 has a lot more going on that our original drive, it’s only about a pound heavier.
To give you an idea of the iterative design process, I made approximately 15 full working prototypes, have 200 versions of the drive on my computer, and needed to do 7 sets of changes to the injection-molded tooling before production. The 360 is a precision instrument, which means that all the tiny details are critical.
I tested the MirageDrive 360 and steering system on a variety of platforms over the years, often just cutting a production hull and fiber glassing a well into it. When I’m not in Oceanside at Hobie, I’m in Montreal (where my wife is from) and I found that an inflatable kayak was the easiest test bed as I could carry it over my head around the city, and it was very versatile to work on.
Eventually, it became clear that the Pro Angler series was the right product line to introduce the 360, as it is our flagship fishing kayak. It’s also our most stable kayak, and since the 360 can thrust sideways, we felt this was important. Once we started testing the 360 on the Pro Angler platform, we had Morgan Promnitz and the fishing department fish out of it in as many different environments as they could from shallow fresh water, to saltwater surf launch. Their feedback was critical for me to tune the design to perform optimally.
For me, designing a product like this is a process of becoming more and more honest with yourself about how well it is working. You can’t let your ego get in the way or you’ll end up ignoring the hard facts. I personally tested the drive on over 100 occasions, including several 30+ mile river trips.
My favorite part of the job is abusing the product, running the kayaks over rocks, and into each other. I think the most exciting testing I did was surf launching. The 360 gives you this confidence in the surf zone; you can pivot to face a wave and charge at it. While things definitely went bottoms up at times, it’s pretty thrilling to launch over a wave and get completely airborne.
We also had a testing program within our company to have as many people as possible get on the kayak and give feedback. This was really useful because many of our employees don’t kayak or fish, so it was really interesting to see what was and wasn’t intuitive about the design. As for offering the 360 in other models, we really try to read our customer base to see what the demand is.
I think we made the right choice releasing the 360 on the Pro Angler. I was so immersed in the design process, and had to hide the invention for so long, I really had no idea what the reaction was going to be once we unveiled it. When we launched the 360 at ICAST demo day, I was blown away by everyone’s excitement.
While I love tweaking out on mechanical design, my focus is always on the ergonomics and the end user’s experience. The 360 is a complex device, but the way the user interfaces with it was designed to be simple and intuitive.
There is a small learning curve, but once you get it, you unlock this freedom of movement that changes the way you kayak, and the way you fish. People at demo day tuned into this immediately, which was a relief for me. One of the coolest things was that the lead guys from some of our biggest competition came over and shook my hand and congratulated me.
We are all in this for the same reason, we love to bring new products to people, and it was cool to see everyone’s genuine excitement for a revolutionary product. I was humbled.
While the 360 was my project, I absolutely could not have brought it to market without the support of the entire company. I love what I do, but I like to describe myself as a gear in the Hobie machine.
None of this could happen without the constant support of the design and engineering team, as well as all the other departments supporting every step of the way from purchasing to marketing to production. The owners and leads at Hobie thrive on innovation, and without that mindset, there is no way I could have developed a product like this that took so long to bring to market.”