So, Uh, How Long Till We’re All Wearing Jetpacks?

The history of the solo flyer, and when you’ll have one

June 15, 2016 9:00 am

Jetpacks, like self-driving vehicles and space travel, have finally emerged from our collectively nurtured sci-fi imagination.

The jetpack may be a novel concept. But it’s not a new one.

There was Leonardo Da Vinci’s ornithopter (or “flying machine”); its ubiquity in pulp comics (namely, Buck Rogers in “Armageddon 2419 A.D” in 1928); The Jetsons; James Bond in Thunderball; a 1967 episode of Gilligan’s Island (the stranded cast finds a military jetpack to try and get to the mainland); a string of latter-day science fiction films (Minority Report comes to mind).

But the VTOL (Vertical Take-Off and Landing) industry has taken leaps and bounds in the real world since it first appeared in our pop-cultural consciousness. At present, innovators have not only created, but are now close to commercializing, yet another fantasy. Later this month, one of the jetpack industry leaders is even starting production on a commercial model.

Here’s a look at what’s lifting off.

Who’s propelling the industry and how’d they do it?
The Martin Jetpack, the first enterprise to commercialize jetpacks, is constructed out of carbon-fiber and aluminum that harnesses a petrol-powered piston engine and twin ducted fans (the same design jets use). But the jetpacks are more cumbersome than how they’re fantasized, weighing 440 pounds, so the pilot needs to fasten in pretty securely. Martin’s can elevate to 3,000 feet at up to 46 mph for 35-40 minutes. As with other models, its thrust, altitude and direction are maneuvered by two digitally regulated hand controls, similar to a motorcycle’s “fly by wire” system (an electronic interface that assists in controlling and stabilizing the craft). And if peril should befall, a ballistic parachute will bail you out. Martin says its version is agile enough to fly out of one’s garage for a price tag of $200,000.

Jetpack Aviation’s JB-9, meanwhile, boasts that it is “the world’s only true JetPack” because it’s propelled by two vectored jet engines that run on kerosene, keeping one aloft for over 10 minutes contingent on the pilot’s weight. CEO and test pilot David Mayman took it for a joy ride around the Statue of Liberty for its debut last year in November.

Then there’s Jet Pack International, with its hydrogen peroxide-fueled APOLLO jetter, which can hover for a quarter-mile and lift about 100 feet of the ground for 32 seconds. But JetPack International’s prototype is reserved for spectacle only — a la the Blue Angels and pyrotechnic derbies.  

When will we be taking jetpacks to work without feeling like a test pilot?
The first mercantile jetpack will fly off the shelves this year — but only for emergency or first-response applications. Martin Aircraft recently signed preliminary contracts with Dubai’s Civil Defense Department and a U.S. company called Avwatch that provides aeronautic technologies to local, state, and federal government for disaster recovery. A pilot license and additional training in a jetpack simulator is required to operate one.

But recreational use will have a slower ascent thanks to liability issues; tyro aviators hurtling across the sky at 50-120 mph are new territory as far as rules and preparation are concerned.

JetPack International intends to have a robust training framework before releasing its models into the wild. And Jet Pack International’s VP didn’t fare so well recently, making a calamitous descent into an industrial park after losing control of his company’s proprietary APOLLO jetpack. And regulatory institutions are still playing catchup: in the U.S., the jetpack designs will need to be approved by the FAA and U.S. Coast Guard. Martin Aircraft is currently haggling with New Zealand’s Civil Aviation Authority to structure a new division for jetpacks.

To try to avoid the regulatory morass, Martin is designing jetpacks that can be classified as an “ultralight” aircraft, which in the States doesn’t require a pilot’s license. But they do plan to host a three-day training course to cover liabilities.

How come this is taking longer than self-driving cars and space travel?
The jetpack experienced a precocious birth back in the late 1950s; the post-war jet era saw  crew-cut Wendell F. Moore of Bell Aerosystems develop the Small Rock Lift Device (SRLD), colloquially knighted as the Rocket Belt.

But Moore’s premature version was too heavy and only bobbed for about 20 seconds … nonetheless an engineering marvel of the time. Like current models, it was powered by superheated peroxide that exerted a few hundred pounds of pressure downward for liftoff. By 1966, the Rocket Belt could hover for 21.5 seconds at 850 feet and made an appearance in the Bond film Thunderball. After that, the jetpack became a piece of fanfare, peaking at the 1984 Summer Olympics in L.A. It passed through several more versions throughout the ‘90s, until a murder shrouded in intrigue cast the invention’s status in doubt … right up until it’s current renaissance, that is.

Now, reality almost has almost caught up to jetpack lore, but it’ll still be a while yet until consumers — or at least those of us who can’t fork over 200 Gs — are looking Iron Man eye-to-eye.

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