We were promised jetpacks decades ago. Here's where are they now
So, where are all those jetpacks we were promised? We can't be sure who actually promised it, but somebody did, and we want them now!
Whatever the truth, the idea of jetpacks is engrained in our cultural psyche, so surely it can only be a matter of time before they arrive? Right?
Let's find out.
What are jetpacks?
Jetpacks, otherwise known as rocket belts or rocket packs, are special devices used to transport a wearer through the air. The jets could consist of either expelled gases or liquids. Jetpacks typically consist of some form of back-mounted apparatus with handheld controls, and their concept has been around for some time.
From their origins as pure fantasy in science fiction, various attempts were made to make them a reality in the 1960s, with a resurgence of interest in more recent times. In the 1960s, jetpacks entered the public eye with blockbuster film appearances like in "James Bond: Thunderball".
Working jetpacks tend to come in several forms and many designs, but typically their real-life utility is far inferior to how they are usually depicted in science fiction. This is for various reasons, but the primary reasons include limited fuel, aerodynamics, gravity, and the human body's poor adaptation to flight.
Jetpacks have had considerably more success in space, however, to help astronauts easily maneuver outside of their spacecraft.
To date, working prototypes for jetpacks can be grouped into four main categories.
These include, but are not limited to: -
- Rocket-powered jetpacks
- Turbojet jetpacks
- Hydrojet jetpacks
Liquid-fuelled rocket packs are one of the oldest designs, with one of the earliest concepts devised as early as 1919. Developed by Alexander Andreev, a Russian engineer who thought soldiers might use the device to leap over walls and trenches. The design actually received a patent but was never built or tested. The Nazis later considered the idea for their Himmelsstürmer (heaven stormer) program, but they did not get far before the war ended.
In 1961, Bell Aerosystems developed a two-jet pack called the Bell Rocket Belt, which used hydrogen peroxide as fuel. In fact, hydrogen peroxide fuelled rocket packs have historically been another popular choice for jetpack design. They are powered by the superheated gases released from hydrogen peroxide "fuel" decomposition. This solution is very effective but tends to suffer from limited operating time. The Bell jetpack could only fly for 21 seconds.
Hydrogen peroxide-powered jetpacks do, however, benefit from being relatively lightweight and inherently safer. Other forms of hydrogen peroxide rocket packs were also developed throughout the 1950s and 1960s, including, most notably, a variation on the Bell Rocket Belt, which was flown during the opening ceremony of the 1984 Summer Olympic Games in Los Angeles, USA.
Bell's jetpack was also featured in James Bond.
By far, one of the most promising variants of jetpacks is those that utilize turbojet engines. Typically fuelled using kerosene and jet fuel (sometimes also diesel), these jetpacks are generally more efficient and can fly for longer and higher but tend to require more complex engineering and designs.
In most cases, this kind of jetpack benefits significantly from the inclusion of lift-generating surfaces like fixed or retractable winglets.
There is another variant of jetpack called hydro jet packs. These, as the name suggests, make use of high-density or concentrated fluids - usually water - to provide the same thrust and propulsion as exhaust gases in other designs. A relatively newer take on the concept, these kinds of "jetpacks" tend to require some form of flexible pipe attachment to supply the required liquid constantly.
This is because water is hefty, and a lot of it is needed, so carrying enough of it within a self-contained backpack is not feasible. Clearly, this provides these jetpacks with some severe limitations, but they can, in theory, run for longer, so long as they have a steady supply of water.
Such jetpacks can also be used for underwater propulsion too.
Are jetpacks actually safe?
Until fairly recently, jetpacks were the preserve of eccentric daredevils and fantasy films. But after over half a century of refinement, jetpacks are maybe now coming into their own.
Aside from their limited flying time, the main reason for this delay in commercialization has primarily centered around safety. Or, at least, their perceived safety.
While it is true that older jetpacks were primarily considered too much of a wildcard to be seriously considered, modern jetpacks are a bit more promising.
With sufficient training, experience, and regular equipment maintenance, jetpacks could be safe to use. However, as you can appreciate, one of the main issues with jetpacks is the inherent risks associated with being propelled into the air strapped to a scorching engine.
If something goes wrong, there are no real failsafe or emergency systems present - it is challenging to wear both a jetpack and a parachute, for example (the parachute usually needs to be attached to the jetpack itself), and the heat from the jetpack can quickly burn what is nearby. This is why those who fly jetpacks tend to fly them over water or relatively close to the ground.
Even with the benefit of modern engineering, accidents still can and do happen. The most notable in recent times is the death of stuntman Vincent Reffet in November of 2020.
It is not yet clear why his jetpack failed, but it appears the jetpack's failsafe parachute did not deploy in time to save his life.
Other accidents have also been caught on camera but fortunately have not proven fatal. For example. In 2018, one scientist, Dr. Angelo Grubisi, spectacularly crashed into the sea when his jetpack had a severe malfunction.
These, among others, have, quite rightly, led many to question the actual utility and safety of the technology.
Why don't we all have jetpacks yet?
As we previously mentioned, the main reason is that it is actually not easy to make a jetpack. You can't just stick a miniaturized rocket onto your back, take off, and expect to land safely.
As much as that works well in movies like the Rocketeer, the reality of the situation couldn't be further from the truth. For one, the human body is not well suited for flight.
Plus, the user and jetpack have to deal with gravity.
All solutions need to be found to find a workaround while also making sure the jetpack is actually useable. For prolonged flight (as most would probably want one for), you need a way to fuel it and safely exhaust any hot or dangerous gases or liquids away from the user and any nearby people or structures.
Since a human being cannot carry tons of weight on their body, the size and total weight of the jetpack also need to be suitable. For larger craft like airplanes or rockets, these kinds of limitations are not as restrictive.
For these reasons, most experts on the subject forsee jetpacks will be used for search and rescue, fire fighting, medical services, law enforcement, and the armed forces long before being widely available for leisure.
It is also quite likely that we'll never see mass-produced one-size-fits-all jetpacks anytime soon. A more likely future will be custom-built jetpacks or jetpack experiences. In fact, the latter already exists, but more on that later.
Despite all of these issues, jetpacks, as we've seen, have been developed. There are also a number of exciting and promising jetpacks currently in the works, as well as some you can actually strap on and try today!
Let's take a look at some.
1. This UK-built jetpack is looking promising
A UK-based startup called Maverick Aviation unveiled their latest concept for a "universal jetpack" a few years ago. With emphasis placed on safety over all other things, the engineers behind the jetpack leave nothing to chance.
It is envisaged that once the jetpack is fully developed, it could be used by engineers, first responders, and maintenance workers to reach hard-to-access areas with ease routinely. The jetpack could also have interesting applications for militarization, security, and pure pleasure.
The jetpack features an innovative autopilot system that can detect and respond to various problems like low fuel or technical faults. In most cases, where safe to do so, the jetpack will automatically land to protect the user's life.
The Maverick jetpack can travel at speeds up to 30 mph (48 km/h) and can be configured in several different ways to suit different applications better. For example, if it's needed for transporting heavy goods, it can be adapted to help the user carry payloads of up to 30kg.
At present, the jetpack is still very much in its development phase but could see the light of day in the next few years.
But they always say that, don't they?
2. Gravity Industries jetpack is currently under testing for UK emergency services
Another hugely exciting jetpack project comes, once again, from the United Kingdom. Initially developed as the Daedalus Flight Pac, it was developed by a British engineer called Richard Browning. This jetpack is more of a jet suit that differs from other concepts through the presence of additional thrust vectoring jets on the hands for more delicate control.
Browning is a former athlete and Royal Marine Reservist who used his unique perspective to formulate his vision for the jetpack. He began to develop the suit in 2016 before founding Gravity Industries to continue the development of the jetpack.
Their jetpack is currently being put through its paces by the UK's Great North Air Ambulance Service.
Powered by 5 turbines, the jetpack has 1050HP and can reach speeds of up to 85 mph (136 kph).
If everything goes to plan and the jetpack passes with flying colors, it is hoped that it could be used to allow paramedics and first responders to reach some of the most inaccessible parts of the countryside in short order. For example, it should be possible to contact someone in distress on a mountainside in a matter of minutes rather than hours.
More importantly for us, however, Gravity Industries are even developing a leisure version of their jetpack suit. While it is unclear whether you can actually buy one as yet, you can tour their facility and test their jetpacks for yourself (under controlled conditions).
3. Jet Pack Aviation has been in the news for a while now
Another potential candidate for finally making personal jetpacks a reality is a company called Jetpack Aviation. Founded in 2016 by entrepreneur David Mayman, the company has developed a series of modified turbojet engines that run on a mixture of jet fuel, kerosene, and diesel.
One, the JB10, has a maximum service ceiling of 18,000 feet (5,486 meters). It could reach speeds of up to 120 mph (193 kph) and has a maximum flight time of around 8 minutes.
The JB10 is very similar to their earlier JB9 but features an increase in fuel capacity and thrust and more sophisticated computer engine controls and pilot displays. The JB9 was the original model that made the company famous when Mayman used it to fly around the Statue of Liberty in 2015.
Their other current model, the JB11, is the JB10s bigger brother and has an increased fuel capacity and performance. It is heavier with a similar service ceiling and can reach similar speeds but has an improved endurance.
This model works by using six turbojet engines and has been specially designed for vertical flight. The engines are managed by a powerful computer system that balances the thrust from the engines, should the pilot run into problems, enabling them to safely land.
Prices are not listed on their website, but you can get in touch for a personalized offer.
4. The Martin Jetpack was one of the world's first but is now mothballed
Back in 2014, the Martin Jetpack took the world by storm when it received full certification from the Civil Aviation Authority for crewed flights. Developed by the New Zealand-based Martin Jetpack, the jetpack is one of the most uniquely designed examples globally.
While the company was officially liquidated in 2019, you can still find its products for sale online.
The manufacturer advertised its only working model, the P12, as the "world's first practical jetpack" by the manufacturer, who also claimed that it was "incredibly versatile, compact and easy to operate". The jetpack was also advertised as being ideal for various activities, including security (offense and/or defense), surveillance, emergency response, and recreational activities in both its crewed and uncrewed versions.
Apparently, the jetpack had "pilot safety features [including] a fail-safe parachute deployable as low as 6m."
The jetpack is powered by a gasoline-driven internal combustion engine that can generate enough thrust to lift a weight of 220 lbs (100 kg). It has enough fuel to continuously operate for around an hour and a half and can reach speeds in excess of 62 mph (100 kph). It also has a maximum service ceiling of 5,000 feet (1,524 m).
All that is known at present is that the company's former major stakeholder, Kuang-Chi Science, was looking for a buyer for Martin Jetpack's remaining assets, but little else is known about the status of the P12.
5. Flyboard Air combines the idea of a jetpack with a hoverboard
Yet another interesting concept is this jetpack-slash-hoverboard called the Flyboard Air. Apparently inspired by the Green Goblin's hoverboard, this device was developed by a French inventor named Franky Zapata; the jetpack/hoverboard is powered by a series of gas turbines and fueled by kerosene.
In 2016, Zapata managed to break a Guinness World Record when he managed to coax his Flyboard Air over a total distance of 7,389 feet (2,252m).
Zapata claims that the jetpack/hoverboard can reach up to an altitude of 9,800 ft (3,000 m) and has a top speed of 120 mph (200 kph). It also has 10 minutes' endurance and 264 lb (120 kg) load capacity.
The Flyboard Air has some essential safety features, including built-in redundancy should one or more engines fail. This allows the board to be brought under control and safely landed before disaster strikes.
It also features advanced stabilization features to further enhance the machine's safety.
The Flyboard Air has received some interest from various militaries worldwide, including the French Military. Z-AIR, another of Zapata's companies, received a 1.3 million euro grant to develop further and militarize the concept. As of yet, the Flyboard Air has not been fully modified for military applications but could provide some interesting opportunities as a flying logistical platform or for assault activities.
The U.S. Army has also shown some interest in the past with Zapata's EZ-Fly variant but did not pursue the matter any further. The EZ-Fly has been specifically designed for potential military or civilian use with a shallower learning curve and greater stability.
6. JetLev uses the power of water to get you airborne
By far one of the most accessible types of jetpack for consumers is the JetLev hydro jet pack. Patented in 2008, work on the jetpack began in 2000 by Raymond Li.
After spending some years beefing out the design, Li was able to secure some investor funding to build some working prototypes. He would later move to America to finalize the design and get further investment for production.
Since then, Li has secured some clients who hire out the JetLev packs for thrill-seeking tourists.
JetLev is derived from jetski technology. It is water-propelled and fed by an umbilical. It can lift an adult human about 30 feet (10m) into the air for extended periods of time. Today, many variants of the original JetLev are available at reasonably competitive prices.
7. Yves Rossy's jet wingpack is truly impressive
One of the most iconic examples of more modern jetpacks is the so-called wingpack developed by Yves Rossy. A Swiss, military-trained pilot, Rossy took his passion for flight to whole new heights when deciding to build his own personal jetpack.
After making a series of experimental jetpacks, his most recent version features carbon-fiber wings. The wings have a wingspan of about 8 feet (2.4 meters), and four Jetcat P400 jet engines propel the jetpack.
These are modified versions of kerosene-fueled model aircraft jet engines.
Using an earlier variant of his jetpack design, Rossy was able to fly horizontally for about six minutes for the first time. Since then, he has continued modifying the design and testing it, including a solo flight over the Alps Mountain Range in 2008.
During this flight, his jetpack was able to reach speeds of 189 mph (304kph). In 2009, he attempted but ultimately failed to cross the Strait of Gibraltar but managed to cross the Grand Canyon in 2011.
More recently, in 2015, Rossy and the late Vince Reffett performed a choreographed demonstration flight with an Airbus A380 at 4,000 feet (1,219m) altitude. In 2020, he demonstrated the vertical takeoff abilities of his latest jetpack and how it transitioned to horizontal flight.
Since these are one of a kind, it is unlikely they will be mass-produced anytime soon.
And that is your lot for today.
While jetpacks are yet to become mainstream, we will start seeing them in specialist roles soon. It'll be a few more years for the rest of us before you can get one for your daily commute.
Editorial Note: An earlier version of this article mixed up the James Bond movie "Thunderball" with Ford's car "Thunderbird". The error has been corrected.
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