All Tech Considered
11:12 am
Sat August 17, 2013

Out Of The Comics, Into Reality: Jet Pack Moves Closer To Market

Originally published on Sat August 17, 2013 1:45 pm

From Buck Rogers to James Bond, we all have a pretty concrete mental image of a jet pack — a motorized backpack with little handles in front and smoke shooting out of the back.

The New Zealand-based Martin Aircraft Co. doesn't just think it's turned the jet pack of your imagination into a reality. It thinks it's made something better.

"The ones that you've seen previously in history seem to have a very limited time of endurance," CEO Peter Coker tells NPR's Don Gonyea. "We wanted something that you could actually use on the day-to-day basis."

The company plans to put the jet pack on the industrial market next year.

The structure consists of an engine and two ducts — those wing-like structures coming out of the side — and a pilot console. The pilot can stand on the console, strap in and use joystick-style controls to fly around.

Last week, New Zealand's Civil Aviation Authority granted the company permission to conduct piloted tests of the one-person flying machine. Before this, most tests have been done with dummies via remote control.

The origins of the project go all the way back to 1984, when inventor Glenn Martin began tinkering with the idea in his garage. He started Martin Aircraft 20 years later, and he's been working with a team of engineers to perfect the flying machine ever since. A dozen prototypes later, the jet pack can travel almost a mile high.

"We reckon it can probably move about 8,000 feet, but we don't think many people will want to go much higher than that, particularly when they're strapped into this machine," Coker says.

He says it took some time for people to believe that the machine could really fly that high: "There was a perception amongst the public and certain aviators — a skeptical perception — that actually this thing doesn't get above what we call ground effect, i.e. a couple of feet."

To squelch that opinion, the company shot a video from a helicopter, showing off the altitude and the effectiveness of the ballistic parachute that can be deployed in the event of an emergency landing. (Don't worry, they used a dummy for the test.)

The company's first jet pack will be on the market in 2014 and will be targeted to first-responders, who could benefit from being able to cut through traffic and to have an aerial view. Martin Aircraft has gotten a lot of interest from fire services around the globe, as well as search-and-rescue, border patrol and bridge inspection teams. Since the machine can be flown unmanned, Coker says, there's also been tremendous interest from military institutions worldwide.

"What is really fantastic is taking something out of the comic books and actually using it in a practical world," he says. "This will change the whole dynamics of aviation."

The company hopes to put a more basic jet pack for recreational use on the market in 2015.

The machine is registered under New Zealand's Civil Aviation Authority, so flying one would require an ultralight or microlight license — the same thing needed to pilot a powered hang glider and some hot air balloons. And in case you were wondering, the engine is gasoline powered. As Coker says, "You could stop at a garage and fill it up."

The cost is only a ballpark estimate at this stage, but the anticipated price of a military model — which would have more sophisticated communication features — is around $250,000. For the individual and commercial sector, the projected cost is about $150,000 to $175,000.

Start saving up now!

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Transcript

(SOUNDBITE OF A JET PACK)

DON GONYEA, HOST:

That is the sound of a jet pack ascending into the sky. And it's not from a movie. It's video from a test flight for a product that could be yours in a couple of years. Inventor Glenn Martin began designing a jet pack in his garage back in 1984. Last week, the Martin Aircraft Company got permission to conduct piloted tests of the one-person flying machine.

So is this a science fiction fantasy about to come true? Peter Coker is CEO of Martin Aircraft Company. He is with us from his office in Christ Church, New Zealand. Thanks for joining us.

PETER COKER: Thank you. And I'm delighted to be here.

GONYEA: So when most people imagine a jet pack, they imagine those things that we saw a video of, you know, what, 30, 40, 50 years ago, that little thing that they wear on their back with two little handles in front and smoke shooting out of the bottom. What you have come up with is a bit more complicated. Describe for us what it looks like.

COKER: The ones you've seen in the previously that you talked about in history tend to have a very limited time of endurance - anything from, you know, 20 seconds to about 40 seconds. We wanted something that you could actually use on a day-to-day basis. So what we have is we have a basic structure with the two ducts on it and the engine. And on that, we place what we call the pilot console. Primarily, it's there so that he can just stand on this thing, strap himself in and use the controls that we have to fly himself around.

GONYEA: OK. So the video - I will admit the video is very intriguing.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARTIN JETPACK TEST FLIGHT VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Looking good. I'm ready to go.

GONYEA: We see the pilot take off, and there's a helicopter next to him. And he achieves significant altitude. But tell me what I'm looking at in that video.

COKER: There was a perception amongst the public and certain aviators, a skeptical perception that actually this thing doesn't get above what we call ground effect, i.e. a couple of feet. So we wanted to do two things. We wanted to prove that, and the second thing we wanted to prove was a ballistic parachute was going to be suitable for an occasion where we had an emergency landing. What you're seeing on that particular video was actually a dummy in that particular one because clearly we didn't want to go and try this parachute for the first time with a real person in it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARTIN JETPACK TEST FLIGHT VIDEO)

COKER: And it actually went up to 5,000 feet for this particular exercise before we fired the chute.

GONYEA: That's a mile, just shy of a mile.

COKER: That's right. We say - reckon it can probably move about 8,000 feet, and we don't think that many people will want to go around much more higher than that, particularly when they're strapped into this machine.

GONYEA: So who do you imagine is going to be buying these things, using these things?

COKER: Our first jet pack, which comes out in 2014, will be really targeted towards what we call the first responder. We have a lot of interest from the fire services around the world right now. We see it being used in search and rescue, border patrol, things like pipeline inspections, inspection of your bridges and things like that. So those are our first target areas. And there has been tremendous interest from the military across the world as well. This thing could actually be flown either as a manned item or an unmanned item.

GONYEA: You're describing these very practical uses, but at the same time, it feels like it's out of Marvel Comics or something.

COKER: That's the exciting part of this. I mean, I think we're finding tremendous interest in this product because of that particular concept. But what is really fantastic is taking something out of the comic books and actually using it in a practical world. I mean, this will change the whole dynamics of aviation.

GONYEA: OK. So here's the big question. How much is it going to cost me to fly one of these babies off the lot?

COKER: The figures I gave, I guess, are really ballpark at this stage. For the individual and the commercial sector, we're going to be targeting around about the 150 to $175,000, about the same as a really, really good sports car.

GONYEA: All right. Peter Coker is the CEO of Martin Aircraft Company. You can see a video of the Martin Jetpack test flights at our website. Go to npr.org and click on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Thank you, sir.

COKER: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.