When are we all getting jet packs?

By | 4 minute read | November 15, 2017

Several aerospace companies are currently developing electrically driven vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) vehicles. Volocopter is developing a two-seater autonomous air taxi powered by 18 rotors.

For nearly a century, people have imagined that one day we’d all use jet packs to get around. In the 1920s, the idea for the devices first emerged in pulp magazines, and by the 1950s, they were a B-movie staple.

But in 1960, jet packs blasted out of the realm of science fiction and into reality when Bell Aerosystems engineer Wendell F. Moore developed the Bell Rocket Belt for the U.S. Army. In 1962, the Bell team had a patent and flew their invention in the Pentagon courtyard for President Kennedy. One small problem: It could only fly for about 20 seconds.

“The practical value of a jet pack has never been tied to the dream of a jet pack,” Daniel H. Wilson, author of the New York Times bestselling Robopocalypse, told IBM.

And yet, in the decades since Moore’s first flight, engineers have continued to develop jet pack technology in pursuit of a model that could serve as a viable method of short-distance personal transportation. New Zealand-based Martin Aircraft Company, for one, unveiled a prototype jet pack in 2013 that could travel up to 7,000 feet in the air, reach speeds of 50 miles an hour, and keep a pilot airborne for up to half an hour.

The technology to catapult solo pilots into the sky, it seems, has arrived. So why aren’t jet packs a signature feature of our transportation systems today?

“Of course, the realities of operating in air space in metropolitan areas and regulatory requirements present a number of hurdles,” Martin Aircraft CEO James West told IBM.

Aviation regulations differ from country to country, West said, but it’s “highly unlikely” that any authority would allow “a large number of personal devices to fly unregulated and with untrained pilots operating them.” There’s also the cost, which “for the foreseeable future” would likely be “beyond the price range of the average person.”

For now, West said, Martin has determined that jet packs are not “commercially viable in the near term.” Instead, the company is now investigating how jet packs could be used as a tool for first responders and search and rescue personnel in recovery operations. Still, West said he still believes that “highly automated personal flight devices will become reality in the medium to long term.”

He’s not the only one. Several aerospace companies are currently developing electrically driven vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) vehicles, and looking to get them up in the air in the next few years. Lilium, for one, is developing an all-electric air taxi with vertical takeoff and landing capabilities. Volocopter, meanwhile, is developing a two-seater autonomous air taxi powered by 18 rotors.

Volocopter CEO Florian Reuter told IBM he expects the first fixed Volocopter routes to be in place within the next five years, and several thousand Volocopters to be flying in megacities across the world within the next decade.

“Once it is a proven means of public transportation in one city, other megacities will jump on the trend. We are certain of that. Not only are Volocoper routes much cheaper than tunnels, trails, or roads to build and maintain, they are also completely flexible. A Volocopter could fly during the week from NYC to Newark and on the weekends from NYC to the Hamptons,” Reuter said.

The need for alternative methods of air travel for short journeys, said IBM industrial marketing leader Kevin Condron, is undeniable. But while aeronautical innovation may be fast-moving, he said, “there’s definitely a way to go to create the kind of city that you see depicted in Star Wars, with different crafts whizzing backwards and forwards.”

Infrastructure and regulation updates don’t move at light speed. But air travel is already moving swiftly into the future in other ways. Increasingly, passengers expect their airlines to know their preferences and provide elevated, personalized travel experiences. To do that, airlines are collecting more data and using AI to drive solutions.

Many exciting near-term advances in personal mobility, Condron said, are also happening at the ground level. In China, bike sharing is exploding, thanks to a dockless model that allows companies to easily distribute bikes around cities. Autonomous vehicles, meanwhile, are closer than ever before to hitting the road. And autonomous taxi fleets are on the way. According to an IBM survey of over 16,000 US consumers, people are eager to engage with cars in new ways.

The vehicle of choice in the 20th century was the car — a vehicle typically owned and operated by its user. Jet packs were a logical, ambitious extension of that transportation ideal. Today, it seems, that ideal is shifting. Mobility may not necessarily mean ownership, and it might not necessarily mean taking the wheel oneself.

But while the means may be different, Wilson said, the fundamental dream of getting from place to place quickly and easily is the same.

“People in the 60s wanted to be free and independent and people do now too,” Wilson said.

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