It's been a long time coming. While Arthur C. Clarke's satellites have taken to space, and James Bond's futuristic mobile technology has become common place, still the dream of sustained personal flight has eluded us. But the future is here! Finally we can all take flight as Martin Aircraft in New Zealand releases the first commercially-available jet pack!
A bit of history...
Like many science fiction concepts, the jetpack design has become firmly entrenched in the collective psyche: ask anyone to draw you a jetpack and they will give you a man with two fiery pods strapped to his back gravitating him skyward. We owe much of this to James Bond's Thunderball, which served to advertise the most successful of all the jetpack inventions; the Bell Rocket Belt.
Developed by the U.S. military in 1961 with the aim of producing an all-terrain vehicle to move military commanders around a battlefield, the Bell Rocket Belt could only maintain flight for 26 seconds on a full tank of fuel. After the film was released the subsequent clamoring for sales only served to prove what a marketable product a jetpack might be if one could be properly developed. Sadly with such limited application the Bell Rocket Belt was consigned merely to film work and TV appearances.
More recently, aside from the exploits of a brave few like Yves Rossy, attempts to realize a one-person flying machine ranging from flying exoskeletons to ion-propelled and water-drive technology have failed to gain momentum.
In 1998 and Martin Aircraft of Christchurch New Zealand was formed with the specific aim to build a jetpack that improved on the Bell Rocket Belt's record fly time by 100 times. The concept, developed by Glenn Martin, manager of Martin Aircraft in 1981, was verified by the Mechanical Engineering Department at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand. Since then nine prototypes have been developed and it is lucky number nine that in 2005 broke the mold and achieve sustained flight times.
The Jetpack is constructed from carbon fiber composite, has a dry weight of 250 lbs (excluding safety equipment) and measures 5 ft high x 5.5 ft wide x 5 ft long. It's driven by a 2.0 L V4 2 stroke engine rated at 200 hp (150 kw), can reach 8000 ft (estimated) and each of the two 1.7 ft wide rotors is made from carbon / Kevlar composite.
There is always risk associated with flying so Martin Aircraft has been careful to equip the pack with redundant systems that will take over in the event that the main system goes down. If a crash-landing is required, a pilot-operated toggle will rapidly fire a small amount of propellant deploying a ballistic parachute (similar to a car airbag) which will allow the pilot and jetpack to descend together. It also has an impact-absorbing carriage, patented fan jet technology and 1000 hours engine TBO (Time Between Overhaul). Small vertical take-off and landing aircraft (VTOL) are not subject to the same limitations as other helicopters and fixed wing aircrafts but Martin Aircraft have built it to comply with ultralight regulations and therefore suggest it as at least as safe to operate, and claim it is the safest of all jetpacks yet built.
The Jetpack achieves with 30 minutes of flight time and is fueled by regular premium gasoline, though you will undoubtedly earn some disbelieving stares at the petrol station. Since it has been built according to ultralight regulations no FAA recognized pilot's license is required to fly one in the U.S., though this will depend on a country's specific requirements. However, despite being significantly less complex than a helicopter to fly as pitch and roll are controlled by one hand, thrust and yaw by the other, Martin Aircraft won't let anyone take receipt of their jetpack before completing their specially-developed Martin Aircraft Company approved training program. The pilot must also weigh between 140-240 lbs.
Tell what I really want to know: how can I get my hands on one?
After nine prototypes Martin Aircraft have an accurate expectation for how much a jetpack will cost, and suggest that at $86,000 it is pitched at the level of a high-end car. As sales and production volume increase they expect this to drop to the price of a mid-range car. A 10% deposit buys you a production slot for 12 months hence; progress payments are made during manufacture with final payment due on delivery. Details and a deposit contract are available from their Martin Aircraft's website.
And when will I be able drive it to work? Again it's a waiting game as currently air traffic control technology is not yet advanced enough to cope with jetpacks, but the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is developing "highways in the sky" technology - 3D highways based on GPS tracks. Initial tests have been positive but the technology is unlikely to be implemented for another 10 years yet so for the meantime initial use will remain recreational as with jet-skis, snowmobiles and ultralights. Until then we'll keep waiting and watching the sky...
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