Aiming High

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-By Aleisha Parr

Imagine that you are cruising across the centre of the Grand Canyon, a jetpack strapped on to your back and nothing but the beauty and majesty of the moment between you and the ground. This is no longer science fiction or fantasy, though it is the dream of Richard Lauder, CEO of The Martin Aircraft, now in the final stages of bringing to market the world’s first practical jetpack.

Man has always dreamed of taking flight, and over the ages has developed countless aircraft to help him achieve his goals. What has always eluded him though has been personal flight, such as one would achieve through the development of a practical jetpack. As early as the 1920s, plans for jetpack design have been explored through popular media, and in the 1950s the first serious attempts to build a jetpack, the Bell Rocket Belt, only served to fuel the dream more but offered no practical results. Not only was its fuel expensive and hazardous, but the jetpack required a light weight pilot and was incredibly difficult to fly – not to mention it could only fly for thirty seconds!

It wasn’t until 1981 when Glenn Martin, then a university student studying in New Zealand, embarked on his journey to develop a jetpack which would be both more practical and more inspirational than the Bell Rocket Belt. Through his hard work and perseverance, along with the incredible support of a large and dedicated group of experts and enthusiasts, Martin introduced to the world on July 29th, 2008 the Martin Jetpack – the world’s first practical jetpack.

“It has been [Glenn’s] dream that has provided the ongoing impetus to the organisation,” explains Richard Lauder, “we now have a board of seven directors who are all achievers in their own right. We have a dedicated team of engineers working full time on the project. We have a global network of technical specialists who assist us on specific tasks, so it’s become more than a one-man organisation; it’s now a properly resourced commercial venture with a view that we’re going to make jetpacks and jetpack technology a major commercial success story for New Zealand.”

The Martin Jetpack is a small personal aircraft powered by a purpose built gasoline engine driving twin ducted fans, producing significant thrust to lift the aircraft and pilot in a vertical take-off and landing. Sustained flight is possible, and the craft can typically stay in the air for approximately thirty minutes, achieving speeds of up to 100 kph. There are several versions of the jetpack currently in development, including both a manned and unmanned, and a remote-controlled version (UAV), which are all in the final stages of development.

“There are some very significant technical problems that you have to overcome to actually create a jetpack,” says Richard Lauder, “and I think that through the combination of efforts in science and engineering and hard work, we’ve broken the back of the problem. Without appropriate power rate ratios and engines, without appropriate low, very light-weight composite materials, computing power, avionics and sensors – if we didn’t have all of those put together in the right way, with some very smart thinking – than you can’t create a jetpack, and I think we’ve managed to put all of those things together and build a unique aircraft.”

Though the original vision for the Martin Jetpack was as a recreational vehicle, Richard Lauder says that the company has received an extraordinary amount of interest from commercial, government and military sectors, with a wide variety of applications in each sector.

One version currently in development has been designed for use in the emergency services sector. It is slightly larger and faster, with heavier lift capabilities and a greater fuel capacity, allowing it to fly for longer periods of time. There is also an unmanned version which could have a number of applications, particularly in military applications for matters such as forward re-supply and cargo delivery. This unmanned version is perfect in these instances, being able to carry up to 150 kg and transport it up to 30 km plus return. Autonomous rescue missions could even be a possible application for the UAV.

The standard design for the Martin Jetpack allows for complete control of the aircraft, allowing its operator a smooth flight. Currently, the Martin Aircraft team is working to fine tune the human machine interface, flight control systems, electronic stability and computer aided flight systems to ensure optimal ease of use. Field testing on the UAV has proven extremely beneficial in assisting in this process, enabling the company to push the boundaries without placing any of its engineers in harm’s way.

The Martin Jetpack was designed to meet the requirements of the FAA Part 103, Ultralight Regulations, a classification created specifically for small recreational aircraft. As such, the Martin Jetpack does not require an FAA recognised pilot’s license to operate it, though the Martin Aircraft Company has created its own approved training program which it requires all operators of the Martin Jetpack to complete before they may purchase an aircraft.

As it should be with any new technology, safety is of the utmost concern for Martin Aircraft, and has been an integral part of the development of the Martin Jetpack from its initial design through now to its extensive field testing. Says Richard Lauder, “We are making a very, very safe aircraft, and that to some extent holds us back from selling them, because we know we can make it very, very safe.”

The Martin Jetpack has a number of safety features which are part of its design. Its internal roll cage utilises a carbon Kevlar hoop throughout the ducts, protecting the pilot from side impact, control arms which protect from the front and are designed to snap off in a hard impact, and a lower spine extension which prevents injury to the pilot from a hard landing. The Martin Aircraft team has also developed far higher ‘factors of safety” (FOS) throughout the jetpack design, which far exceed the normal standards for an aircraft to prepare for potentially unforseen factors. Finally, The Martin Jetpack is equipped with a Ballistic Parachute system from Ballistic Recovery Systems, which can open at very low altitudes, especially when the aircraft has some forward speed.

“We’re really competing with the same sorts of things that helicopters do,” explains Richard Lauder, “but there are certain times where if you’re in a helicopter and potentially something goes wrong, you will be seriously injured or die. We’re trying to get rid of that avoidance curve altogether and we know we can do it. That’s our target and that’s what we’d like to be able to do before we start selling them to members of the public.”

To do that, Martin Aircraft has been focussing on completing testing and verification over a broad range of safety and ease of use areas, before the jetpacks will be introduced officially to the market for purchase. From there, it’s anyone’s guess just how far we might go with this incredible technology. From saving lives in remote areas, to assisting with difficult tasks in emergency situations, to sending supplies to those in need, to cruising across the Grand Canyon, the possibilities are truly endless now that our fantasy has become a reality through the dedication and perseverance of Glenn Martin and his dream of flight.

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June 27, 2022, 1:34 PM AEST