GIF: Andrew Liszewski (Gizmodo)

It’s not often you find some genuine innovation coming from a company whose products are targeted at kids. Toymakers tend to stick to minor feature upgrades or simple cosmetic improvements to make existing products feel new again. When it was announced Toy Fair 2019, I assumed Spin Master’s Ducati Upriser was just another RC motorcycle. A quick demo revealed some truly impressive self-balancing capabilities. It’s not perfect, but watching this scaled-down bike balance on two wheels all by itself is kind of magical.

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Before you jump into the comments to set me straight, I realize that remote control motorcycles are far from a new idea. YouTube is full of videos of enthusiasts piloting their tiny two-wheeled racers around tracks. Self-balancing on two wheels isn’t new either, but RC bikes can typically only do that when the motorcycle races up to speed. When they slow down and stop, they fall over and rely on arms protruding from either side of the bike to remain partially upright until they accelerate again.

For the Ducati Upriser, Spin Master took an entirely different approach, inspired by a toy designer’s observations while waiting for a flight at an airport. Daryl Tearne, an industrial designer who’s worked at Spin Master for over ten years now, was waiting for a flight at Los Angeles’ LAX airport and while mindlessly staring at the ground crews going about their routines on the tarmac, he was captivated by one of the specialized machines that’s used to load giant cargo containers onto planes.

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An airport cargo loading machine was the inspiration for the Ducati Upriser toy.
GIF: Kai A. Hortmann (YouTube)

Unlike the moving conveyor belts that lift bags and suitcases into a plane’s underbelly, these machines lift giant cargo containers on a rising platform that uses a series of flush-mounted wheels to spin and reposition heavy containers with ease. These omnidirectional wheels are also often seen on vehicles that operate in tight spaces, like forklifts, and Tearne realized the maneuverability they afforded could potentially be applied to motorcycles.

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That LAX epiphany occurred almost five years ago. It’s taken Tearne, a team of Spin Master’s designers and engineers, and outside vendors, that long to take the idea for the Ducati Upriser from a concept to a fully-functional toy. Along the way, it gained a few additional tricks that Tearne had never even considered as a possibility five years ago.

The world’s first omnidirectional RC motorcycle wheel is what allows Spin Master’s Ducati to pull off its nifty tricks.
GIF: Andrew Liszewski (Gizmodo)

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Spin Master teamed with Ducati for the Upriser’s design as the companies had an existing relationship through the toy maker’s Meccano line. While the Upriser is inspired by Ducati’s Panigale V4 motorcycle and features styling guided by the Italian cycle maker, what stands out most about the Upriser is the unique tech that makes it work. The motorcycle’s rear wheel is comprised of 16 smaller wheels that rotate perpendicular to its spin. That allows the wheel to not only roll forward and back but also side to side at the same time.

Each of those smaller wheels is connected and tied to a rotation encoder that can detect even the slightest movements. That, coupled with an accelerometer located in the body of the bike, gives the RC motorcycle some innovative capabilities.

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Holding the Ducati Upriser for a few seconds allows the toy to calibrate its sensors and find its balance automatically.
GIF: Andrew Liszewski (Gizmodo)

The toy’s central feature is its ability to balance all by itself. All you have to do is hold the bike upright for a few seconds until the front wheel automatically straightens, and the back wheel comes to life to keep it upright. It’s a simple trick that’s incredibly satisfying every time you see it happen. And that’s good because you’ll find yourself having to right the Ducati Upriser quite often.

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Driving the bike is easy enough. Spin Master has thankfully included a physical RC controller (instead of an annoying touchscreen app) with a pair of bi-directional joysticks. It’s easier to drive than traditional RC motorcycles as the omnidirectional back wheel allows the bike to turn a full 360 degrees while it’s standing still. It’s fast, though, and more often than not you’ll find yourself crashing into walls if you’re not careful.

Popping a wheelie with the Ducati Upriser is as easy as just pressing a single button on the controller.
GIF: Andrew Liszewski (Gizmodo)

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A shoulder button initiates the Ducati Upriser’s most impressive trick—its ability to automatically do a wheelie and drive around in any direction while on one wheel. It’s a trick that Spin Master’s toy designers didn’t realize would be possible until they were well into the product’s development. But it’s a really fun way to show off just how innovative this RC toy is.

Bonus points awarded for Spin Master including a physical controller instead of relying on an app running on a mobile device.
Photo: Andrew Liszewski (Gizmodo)

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Even with five years of development, however, the Ducati Upriser still feels like a first-generation product that could use some improvement. My biggest complaint is that even though the controller includes a button for allowing the motorcycle to work on either smooth or bumpy surfaces, I had little success in driving it around outside. The self-balancing still works on surfaces like asphalt or smooth concrete, but the bike tended to fall over quite often during even gentle turns or quick stops. I couldn’t get the wheelie mode to work at all on anything but polished hardwood floors.

Given the speeds the bike can hit, being able to drive it outside on long stretches of pavement reliably would be a welcome improvement. With a $150 price, it’s going to appeal more to older RC enthusiasts than kids, but its replay value is limited by where you can take it for a spin—unless you’re one of those millionaires with an indoor basketball court.

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README

  • There’s some impressive self-balancing technology packed into this RC toy.
  • Watching it perform a wheelie all by itself, and then remain balanced on just a single wheel, somehow never loses its novelty.
  • The included physical controller, although a little small, is vastly superior to driving this toy using an app on a mobile device’s touchscreen.
  • Spin Master claims it works on rough or smooth surfaces, but I had little luck driving it anywhere other than smooth indoor surfaces. Its wheelie trick didn’t work once on smooth asphalt roads or concrete sidewalks.
  • At $150, it’s not cheap.

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