As someone born in the early 1950s, I find it thrilling to live in this future, which mostly exceeds the imagination of the Sci-Fi writers I read in my youth. Some aspects of the present seem designed to make it an unprecedentedly golden time to be old – as my memory fails, I have access to all the knowledge of the ages in a small gadget in my pocket – and suddenly the skills that time is taking away from me – the memory for names and other specifics, of where I was last Thursday, of how to cook meringues….seem obsolete, unfashionable. As my outward body decays, it seems less important to have one. Virtual Reality can give me experiences that are now too taxing for my physical body. Something as simple as a bus app can vastly improve my quality of life and, combined with the ubiquity and cheapness of Uber, has made getting from one place to another relatively quick and easy…but…where are the personal transportation miracles I was promised? Where is the jet-pack I need to get me from one place to another as quick as thought? To fulfil the promise of personal flight vouchsafed to me in my dreams? To let me bound across the miles as though weightless?
Things seemed so promising when I was a small child.
In 1955, Stanley Hiller presented the Hiller VZ-1 Flying Platform (the VZ-1E is pictured above), which included two Nelson H-59 engines, a fan, and two large propellers.
In 1958, Thiokol Chemical Corporation marketed a jump belt, a strap-on rocket fuelled by nitrogen tanks, not for the purpose of flying, but to enhance athletes’ ability.
In 1960, Wendell F. Moore of Bell Aerosystems developed the SRLD, the Small Rocket Lift Device. This used pressurized hydrogen peroxide as a fuel, processed through a decomposition catalyst to instantly expand into superheated steam, producing a few hundred pounds of thrust at the exhaust nozzles, which the pilot could control by means of hand grips. Unfortunately, the weight of the fuel required meant that it could only fly for about 20 seconds. Bell rocket belts turn up in movies and on television: Lost in Space, Gilligan’s Island, and memorably in the 1965 James Bond film Thunderball. But at this point, iron entered the soul – the inescapable mathematics of the limitations of flight time due to the weight of the fuel made the whole project a dead end for the aerospace companies, and subsequent developments have come from amateur inventors or small independent companies.
True, in 1994, NASA introduced the SAFER (Simplified Aid for EVA Rescue) a propulsive backpack for use in space when astronauts come untethered during space walks. But a jetpack that works in conditions of weightlessness gets me no closer to a personal jetpack that will take the weight off my arthritic knees.
In 2006 Swiss pilot Yves Rossy developed a kerosene burning pack with wings. This succeeded in crossing the Swiss Alps and the English Channel. But this was a suit comprising 4 jet engines rather than, strictly, a jet pack. It flew at 200 mph and was controlled by shifting his body.
In 2012, Jetlev developed a $99,500 jetpack that can launch people up to 30 feet high using water as a propellant. But the rider of this device has to be tethered by a hose to a boat. It looks a lot of fun, but has no exciting practical applications.
Jetpack International tantalizingly offer two models of jetpack on their website
But they fly for a maximum of 33 seconds, and the release date is TBA
Thunderbolt Aerosystems’ model is marked not for sale.
It looks like my best hope is the Martin Jetpack, made by a New Zealand firm and inviting returnable deposits for packs which they claim will be available in 2017. It is pretty bulky, with a V-4 gas engine and two ducted fans, and looks more like a small personal aircraft than the backpack of my fantasies. It is certainly too large to be stowed in my hallway with the bicycles, and the videos online make me doubt whether it can by moved by one person – the engine alone weighs 60kg. But it claims to fly for 30 minutes – a great improvement on previous models. To quote their website, “The price has not been set yet while the jetpack is still in development. The Martin Aircraft Company is targeting a sales price of under US$150,000 for the recreational version of the aircraft but this may take some years to achieve.”
Maybe I’ll just keep saving for that trip with Virgin Galactic.
Ruth Lingford is Senior Lecturer in Animation in the Dept of Visual and Environmental Studies at Harvard University
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