Sunday, October 3, 2010

Martin Aircraft’s commercial jetpack looks to take flight

It is about time man flew among the birds – alone. We may not have the homes on the moon, or the flying cars that our totally reasonable childhood imaginations ensured us would be waiting for us when we grew up, but with a little luck and a lot of money, we might soon be able to scratch “jetpack” off of our bucket lists.
Imagine one day soon, you kiss the spouse good bye, walk the kids off to the school bus, then you prepare for the commute to work. But rather than sitting in traffic and squeezing your steering wheel in frustration as the car in front of you apparently believes the old adage of “speed kills”, so they are driving 15 MPH under the speed limit, you simply throw on your jetpack, terrify a few birds, and make it to work in record time. Sure there might be a few details that you would need to work out, like the practicalities on your hygiene after ripping through the wind with an engine strapped to your back, or the fact that you are betting your life on the reliability of the vehicle, but we are talking about a jetpack- practicalities be damned!

Although it may sound more sci-fi than sci-fact, a commercially developed jetpack is actually being eyed for mass production, with plans to eventually release it to the public. Let that sink in for a second. Jetpacks are real, and you might be able to buy one someday soon. Or at least see them among the skies.
First, it is important to note that these are reusable and maintainable jetpacks, and that while pricey, they could be landing in garages someday soon. There have been jetpacks available to the public- at least in theory- but shy of Evil Knievel, there really wasn’t much call for a device you strapped to your back that shot out flames and had the better-than-average chance of exploding. Not that there were a high instances of the rocket propelled jetpacks blowing up, but it does seem a bit like flicking fate in the eye and daring death to come and get some.

The jetpack in question is being developed by the Martin Aircraft Company which was founded in 1998 and operates out of New Zealand. Despite what may be the oddest coincidence in the aviation community- an industry not typically known for its love of hilarious coincidences- the Martin Aircraft Company was founded by Glenn Neal Martin, not to be confused with Glenn Luther Martin, whose “Glenn L. Martin Company” became the “Martin” in “Lockheed Martin”. In 2003, Martin Aircraft Company received its first round of funding from the Venture capital group, No 8 Ventures, and formed a board of directors with the goal of growing the company through the revenue produced from the Martin jetpack.
Currently Martin Aircraft Company is fulfilling an order for 500 jetpacks to be used by emergency services, as well as four unnamed defense companies. As of right now, the company’s focus is to produce jetpacks specifically for governmental purchase, but they are seeking funding to build at least one new factory with the purpose of producing jetpacks for the average (extremely rich) customer.
The Martin jetpack comes in two models. One is pretty much what you would expect a jetpack to be- it is a device that can carry a person to infinity and beyond, assuming that infinity is less than the 8000 feet ceiling or the 31.5 miles distance that travelling at the maximum regulated speed of 63mph will take you. With a full tank of gas, that would last roughly 30 minutes, although Martin Aircraft expects that to improve as the manufacturing process becomes more efficient. The other model, which will be an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), will be released before its much sexier human-friendly counterpart. Field trials for the UAV will begin in 2011. Depending on the results, the manned flight field trials will begin in 2012.
The jetpack operates the way you would imagine it. You strap it on, you fly. The principals aren’t all that difficult to comprehend. That might be a little bit of an oversimplification, and possibly a touch insulting to the extremely bright and dedicated engineers that have spent years working on the project, but really, how much convincing do you need that a jetpack is a good thing? You put it on, and suddenly you can fly. Everything else is details.
If you are one of “those” people that absolutely needs to know the specs on the combustion engine that you might one day soon be strapping to your back, the Martin jetpack uses a gasoline powered V4, 2.0 liter engine capable of producing 200 hp. In fact, the name “jetpack” is actually a bit of a misnomer, as there is not jet involved. But “Enginepack” just isn’t as sexy. It is a carbon fiber design that weighs around 250lbs before adding safety equipment, and at maximum thrust it can carry more than 600 lbs, so even the bulky NFL player that just signed a multi-million dollar contract extension can get in on the action. Can you honestly see Terrell Owens NOT buying one of these?

The standard equipment for the jetpack is slightly unique. While Ferrari might give you a hat or a lovely keychain when you purchase one of their products, they probably do not include a flight and engine display, a harness, a retractable undercarriage that absorbs energy, or a ballistic parachute. All of which come standard with the Martin Jetpack.
The jetpack is also remarkably convenient for locations where parking might be an issue. Standing 5 feet tall by 5.5 feet wide, with a length of 5ft, most locations the device is definitely capable of justifying the usage of a “compact” parking spot. These are the specs on the jetpack’s prototype though, so the actual production model will likely undergo some changes.
Many of the specs for the jetpack are regulated by FAA restrictions, including the 5 gallon fuel tank and the areas that the vehicle can legally operate. The FAA does not require that users- who will almost certainly be referred to by owners as “pilots”, or “rocketeers”- will however need to file a flight plan before ripping off into the heavens. How the police or an FAA official would be able to catch pilots that fail to file a flight plan is unknown, but odds are they would find a way.
Currently the Martin jetpack is classified as a recreational vehicle, but it is restricted to non-urban airspaces- at least for now. While this is obviously a problem for the future, once a few senators and congress people hover over the capital for an hour or two, those laws might be changed. The current statutes are sadly lacking in their understanding of the awesome potential for a jetpack, but given enough public groundswell from the potential customer base for these vehicles- i.e., those rich enough to spend $100,000 of a vehicle that can only be used in the country- the pressure to change the existing laws could quickly mount.
In a world that values safety, sometimes you have to approach things with a “what the hell” mentality. Sure, a functional jetpack might not be the most practical way to spend $100,000, but if the choice is between a $100,000 Bentley with a custom made sound system and chrome rims, or a device that can make a human being fly, jetpack > Bentley. Search your feelings, you know it to be true.
To be fair, these jetpacks are not being marketed towards the average consumer any more than you might expect to find a 5-karat diamond advertised on NBC’s Primetime TV lineup. And while there may be something of a personal stake among the ultra rich as to who will be the first to arrive at the end of summer party in the Hamptons in their chromed-out Martin jetpack, the first people to have the chance to pimp their jetpacks will be emergency workers, and others that will use the jetpacks for “responsible” pursuits.
Assuming the first few owners don’t die horribly, it also seems like there will be a high likelihood of these vehicles making their way to high-end rental destinations. If that happens and the legal hurdles are overcome, it is not only possible, but inevitable that while the streets of Las Vegas will be crowded with expensive rental cars, the skies will also see their fair share of occupants.
The timeline for the productions of these jetpacks is still up in the air due to funding, so no word yet on when we might finally be able to take the fight to those birds that have been lauding it over us for millennia, or when we might expect a heroic person to get caught up in events beyond his or her control and end up with a prototype Martin Jetpack that they will then use to fight crime and Nazis, or whatever.
So while we may still be a few years off before we can justify getting really excited by the prospects of a working jetpack, it does seem like gravity, that cruel and fickle mistress that has been keeping us down for years, might finally get its comeuppance as we break free of our earthly restraints and finally take to the skies.