Aug 12 2008 11:50am

I think we define “practical” differently....

One of the enduring images/desires from my sf-tional youth is the jetpack or rocketbelt (depending on which set of aficionados you're talking to).

I mean, the whole idea is so cool—strap on, hit the switch, and soar into the air! Avoid traffic jams and crowded public transportation!


Like you’d be the only one up there with a jetpack...like there wouldn’t wind up being jetpack traffic jams and jetpack police and jetpack “lanes” in the skies...like the people who complain now about living under the flight paths for airports or commuter helicopters wouldn’t have their say on how low or where you could fly. And goodness knows what the safety regulations would be.

But the romance lives on.

Earlier this year Honda used the jetpack motif in a commercial. And there’s always Rocketman.

And then, at the end of July, there was the unveiling of the Martin Jetpack, billed as “the world's first practical jetpack.”

Okay, then, let’s talk about “practicality.”

You can tell from the videos that this thing is loud. Like wearing a pair of vacuum cleaners at ear level—or a pair of small jet engines. The assistants in the videos are wearing ear protectors; the pilot is wearing a crash helmet which I assume also muffles the sound.

It has a parachute, in case the turbines stop—a good thing. Martin Jetpack says the frame and structure are designed to break away in certain areas (like the control arms) and to function like a roll cage in others (like the fan ducts).

All of the jetpack statistics below are from the Martin Jetpack spec page.

It’s 5 feet tall, 5 feet long, and 5.5 feet wide. That's a little smaller than the Smart Car (5 feet tall, 8 feet long, and almost 5 feet wide), but not much, and definitely larger than your average motorcycle. So you need a garage or the equivalent to keep it in, and where do you store it when you get to wherever you’re going?

Empty, it weighs almost 300 lbs. I’m guessing that the average person (oh, btw, pilots need to weigh between 140 and 250 lbs., which cuts out a lot of women) would need help getting it on and off. I expect it would need to be stored on a racking system of some sort. At least if you park it on the street, no one would be likely to pick it up and walk off with it....

The gas tank holds five gallons. Fuel burn is 10 gph. Range is about 31 miles. Top speed is 63 mph (limited by FAA regulations). The videos don’t show anything close to the jetpack’s supposed potential in terms of height, distance, or speed.

Martin considers the jetpack to fall into the FAA’s Ultralight category, so you don’t need a pilot's license to fly one, but you do need to be specially trained. That’s understandable; I expect a whole new batch of reflexes would have to be developed to handle one of these things. Training is expected to take a minimum of five days and there’s an extra fee for that on top of buying the jetpack in the first place.

The FAQ on Martin's website says that at this point in time, the jetpack is a recreational device, the airborne equivalent of the ATV or the jetski. So you can’t run errands or commute by jetpack, at least not yet (air traffic control would have a fit-not to mention local police forces, I expect). What’s the fun in owning a jetpack if you can’t land it in front of your startled colleagues and stroll nonchalantly into work?

At the moment, commissioning one of these—with delivery anticipated in twelve months—requires a ten percent down payment against a purchase price of $100,000.

Okay, I’m just not seeing the “practical” here.

And on a more basic level, somehow this jetpack seems inherently less cool to me than the old-fashioned rocketbelt version. The big fans look clunky and unattractive, though all that blank space cries out for decoration. And to me, at least, this jetpack lack that “welcome to the future” dynamic. Strapping a pair of big fans to your back isn’t really the same as jetting off into the sky, kwim?


[Image by Flickr member jurvetson; licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic.]

David Keck
1. dkeck
That demonstration is quite something. (And sadly is not t called "Death by Leafblower.")

The "Safety Features" section was reassuring. But I think they're missing the most important safety feature: the natural human fear of looking silly, being chopped to pieces before being flung high into the air, and then ending up on YouTube simultaneously.

And can anything the size of a big howling refrigerator really be considered a "pack"? Can it really?
David Keck
2. dkeck
PS: Readers in New Zealand should protect themselves at all times.
Pablo Defendini
3. pablodefendini
Yeah, sadly this has no business calling itself a 'jetpack'. I don't see this one taking off (no pun intended).
Eric Tolle
4. ErictheTolle
I think the old SF jetpacks must have been practical because they used itty-bitty unshielded nuclear reactors.

As for me, I just want something that will allow me to fly my commute.
James Nicoll
5. JamesDavisNicoll
Like you’d be the only one up there with a jetpack...like there wouldn’t wind up being jetpack traffic jams and jetpack police and jetpack “lanes” in the skies...like the people who complain now about living under the flight paths for airports or commuter helicopters wouldn’t have their say on how low or where you could fly. And goodness knows what the safety regulations would be.

If you have not read Bob Shaw's Vertigo (also known as Terminal Velocity, I think) and the related short story "Dark Icarus" (Included in Terminal Velocity), you should.
6. Bruce-Arthurs
I wonder what ever happened to the "flying platform" idea the military was trying to develop about twenty years ago?

Rather than something you strapped onto your back, you stepped onto a small platform that looked something like a chariot body, something like the bottom half of a Dalek. Turbines in the bottom of the platform lifted you up into the air.

I think there were some problems with stability and steering that may have doomed the project's success. Although, hey, maybe if you stuck some of the Segway's stabilizing technology in there, you'd have something nowadays.
Eric Tolle
7. ErictheTolle
If you have something as large as a flying platform, why not just go with a helicopter? at least that way you get an enclosed canopy.

Unless of course we're talking about THIS:

Debbie Moorhouse
8. GUDsqrl
On the other hand, it'll be much safer for pedestrians :D.
Abigail Sutherland
10. evilrooster
If Pablo gets a jet pack and neutronjockey gets a hoverboard, can I have a very good helmet?

Jeffrey Richard
11. neutronjockey
I'll have you know I'm very good at steering across magnetic fields.:P
12. Bruce E. Dutocher II
As far as real jetpacks and flying platforms go...

Williams is the company that built the jet turbine engines for the GM turbine test cars. They built a jet belt using one of their turbines that was featured in flight on the cover of Popular Science. It used JP4 as fuel, travelled at 60mph, and had a drop-down frame to support it while on the ground. It never went on sale, probably because a Williams turbine is not cheap, but during the 70's there was a brief mention (with a tiny picture) of the Williams WASP flying platform being offered for sale at a show for military technology that was held in Washington, DC.

The WASP is currently sitting at the Museum of Flight in Seattle but I'm not tall enough to see the controls from where it's being exhibited--it appears to be partially weight shift like the Hiller Flying Platform of the late 50's and to have been fitted at one point with a ballistic chute.

Considering the success of the jet belt (the PopSci reporter seems to have flown it with minimal training and the film footage of it flying that I've seen had some fairly complex turns while following some sort of creek or valley) I wouldn't dismiss any Williams vehicle out of hand.

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