Visions of the future invariable involve flying. There is a human fascination with flight and the future’s promise of it that so solidly captures the imagination. While everyone may curse the failed promise of flying cars during rush hour traffic, deep down inside, everyone really wants a personal jetpack. There is something about zipping through the air with the help of little more than a backpack that appeals to something juvenile, but undeniably fun. There is, technically, a difference between a jetpack and a rocket belt, but for simplicity, we’ll just lump them together, okay, engineering nerds?
Personal flight as a concept has been around since man first saw birds take to the air, Daedalus and his ill-fated son Icarus being the prime examples. Many thinkers, tinkerers, and inventors have come up with concepts for personal flying machines, though for the most part, they had been some form of winged contraption.
In the 1920s, with the maturity of science fiction as a genre (think H.G. Wells et. al.), the concept of a personal, backpack-style jetpack really began to take off. Buck Rogers, the 1920s hero who finds himself in the 22nd century, had himself one that, if memory serves right, went by a different name, and more than likely ignited the spark in the collective imagination of the human race that would allow the jet pack to break the boundary between the printed page and reality.
The jetpack made several more appearances, this time on-screen, with The Rocket Man in 1954, and possibly most famously strapped onto the back of Sean Connery’s James Bond in the 1965 movie Thunderball. Interestingly, about two years before, Bell Aerosystems actually had a working jetpack, or more technically a rocket belt, that was capable of achieving flight, though for the very limited time of about 20 seconds. Perhaps the biggest moment for jetpack technology was when Bill Suiter flew in for the opening of the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles.
These high-tech, flying science projects generally use hydrogen peroxide which, when subjected to a catalyst, breaks down very, very quickly into water (in the form of lots and lots of steam) and oxygen. The expanding boiling mass is directed downwards, vectored in the necessary direction to go one way or another. This uses up the fuel really quickly, but produces just enough thrust to get airborne at a pretty decent clip. There are other designs, such as the Martin Jetpack, which has a gasoline guzzling engine that puts out a massive 200-horses to power a pair of rotors, but it’s a little less jetpack and more something along the lines of “jet platform” based on the size. Still, at a flying time of half an hour, it’s way better than anything else we’ve got.
Jetpacks are a relatively simple concept. Just create a lot of quickly-expanding gas, strap it onto your back, direct the gas towards the ground and let ‘er rip. In practice, it is a lot harder. Something to consider is that one way to call”rapidly expanding gas” is an explosion. You’re basically strapping a controlled explosion onto your body. All that expanding superheated gas also does terrible things to a pilot’s complexion. Also, cramming sufficient fuel is hard enough, leaving little room for parachutes, which would be of little use; you wouldn’t have enough height for it to be useful unless you went straight up, but then what would be the point? You could add fuel, but that adds weight, which means you need more power, which in turn requires more fuel. It’s pretty self-defeating to approach the problem that way.
Therein lies the problem. Apart from scientists who just wanted to make it happen, it was the US Army that wanted jetpacks, to provide a new way to recon the battlefield of the future. Once they realized how deafeningly loud the thing could be, and how easy (and fun) it would be to shoot down a rocketeer, they scrapped the whole thing, choosing instead to focus on traditional methods of flight for transport and scouting.
The main problem for the development of a jetpack really is the lack of a market. Everybody wants one, sure, but given the limitations and price of both the device and fuel, there really isn’t anyone out there who wants one bad enough. It has been an engineering dream that nobody has been able to execute in a practical manner, but it has been around for a really long time, at least as a concept. This retro-futuristic dream will continue to tickle our fancy and inspire us to reach for the heavens, literally.
Words by Ren Alcantara
First published in Gadgets Magazine, August 2013