Jetpacks, at Long Last?

James Bond had one; Buzz Lightyear has one; and maybe, real soon now, you'll be able to buy one, too

2 min read
Jetpacks, at Long Last?

"Where's my jetpack?"—a longstanding geeky question—has always gotten the same answer: It's just around the corner.

Now comes Martin Aircraft, of Auckland, New Zealand, with a proposal to sell a one-person flyer that uses a two-stroke gasoline engine to power two ducted fans. Purists may quibble that fans do not a jetpack make, but with a claimed working ceiling of 1000 meters, a flying time of up to half an hour, and a range of 30 kilometers, this one may indeed be the world's first practical solo flying machine, just as Martin claims.

Practicality has been the jetpack's weak point ever since the 1950s, when the U.S. military first showed an interest in the idea. An early effort by Thiokol engineers gave a nitrogen-powered kick to a test pilot for a very short time indeed. Later machines from Aerojet General and Bell Aerosystems used hydrogen peroxide rocket fuel, which, like the nitrogen, produced exhaust cool enough to spare the pilot. However, they were only energetic enough to keep testers aloft for about 30 seconds, long enough for a quick scene in the James Bond movie, Thunderball.

The ultimate in cool exhaust that never quits is this Jetlev-Flyer [video], which is powered by water jets.

Problem is, the dangling water tube tethers you to a boat and its engine-powered pump, thus throwing out the very independence that makes the jetpack attractive in the first place. "You begin to bore me, Mr. Bond," the cat-stroking villain would say, as his flunky sends a spinning, razor-edged hat to slice the water tube in two.

Martin says it hopes to sell a US $250 000 version to military customers and a $150 000 version to emergency rescue services. It says that a true, personal jetpack for the kind of person who jumps out of a perfectly good airplane will come later. Maybe much later, if safety regulators, aviation rulings and liability lawyers have a say in the matter.

So, it's still just around the corner.

Meanwhile, waiting in the wings, getting better by the year, is the unmanned aerial vehicle, or UAV. Nobody seems to have yearned for them, back in the glory days of techno-optimism, but these robocopters are designed to do pretty much the same job. They get things and people out of tight spots. And unlike the jetpack, they don't put a pilot's life at risk.

The same sort of technology's involved, though, and maybe that's what Martin Aircraft is banking on. Take a look at this video of the jetpack's latest test flight: the one thing missing is the pilot.

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We Need More Than Just Electric Vehicles

To decarbonize road transport we need to complement EVs with bikes, rail, city planning, and alternative energy

11 min read
A worker works on the frame of a car on an assembly line.

China has more EVs than any other country—but it also gets most of its electricity from coal.

VCG/Getty Images

EVs have finally come of age. The total cost of purchasing and driving one—the cost of ownership—has fallen nearly to parity with a typical gasoline-fueled car. Scientists and engineers have extended the range of EVs by cramming ever more energy into their batteries, and vehicle-charging networks have expanded in many countries. In the United States, for example, there are more than 49,000 public charging stations, and it is now possible to drive an EV from New York to California using public charging networks.

With all this, consumers and policymakers alike are hopeful that society will soon greatly reduce its carbon emissions by replacing today’s cars with electric vehicles. Indeed, adopting electric vehicles will go a long way in helping to improve environmental outcomes. But EVs come with important weaknesses, and so people shouldn’t count on them alone to do the job, even for the transportation sector.

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