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Spirits in the sky: exploring jet packs

Human jetpack flight is becoming more and more real every year. Sally Applin examines our fantasy of jet pack flight as well as some implications of jetpack flight on the human body.

By Sally A. Applin

First we tried feathers and wax. Then Leonardo specified linen and wood. No matter the mythology or the machinery, the dream has always been the same: We’re flying. Floating over fields and cities, unstuck, untroubled, cut loose from the dust. The same dream again and again since we came out of the caves, right through Daedalus and Icarus to Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon – Jeff MacGregor [1]

Photo credits: Christopher St. Peter, Assistant Airport Manager, San Mateo County Airports

Humans are often looking for new territory. At the moment, our focus seems to be towards anything but dry land —unless that dry land is on another planet. Elon Musk, Buzz Aldrin and others are working towards sending humans to Mars. The ocean is once again a place for discovery and escape. For some, the ocean offers offshore tax evasion. For others, it offers utopian man-made islands dreamed up for a future colonization of the seas [2]. We're looking up to our local skies as well. It seems that anything ripe for disruption, exploitation or escape is fair game and the skies are no exception. Driven by commerce, Amazon.com threw down the gauntlet for drone delivery as a mechanism to increase the speed of their product deliveries. They intend for their "delivery drones" to dominate our skies [3]. There are many problems with Amazon's approach [4], but that isn't deterring the delivery drone race from progressing. People are already piloting drones in public spaces, causing all sorts of injuries and concerns, and inspiring FAA policy debates.

With airspace disruption on our minds, people are revisiting dreams of alternate air travel. Jet packs are are back in the news and in imaginations and productions of technologists. (Apparently, piloting drones isn't enough for us; we want to be the drones.)

The dream of flying free goes back in our history from early times as the quote from MacGregor suggests, to later as science fiction comics and stories envisioned a future of free flight. Bell's early hydrogen peroxide powered flying belt was the beginning of the technology that is in use today [5]. As time has progressed, the dream of the jet pack gets revisited. It has returned in the past several years as innovations incrementally improved the technology.

In September of 2008, I checked out the “Jet Pack” demo at the Hiller Aviation museum in San Carlos, California on the Peninsula in Silicon Valley. The museum was hosting a two day exhibition devoted to Jet pack and Rocket pack technologies. At the end of the ThunderMan lecture [6], the Thunderbolt Aerosystems' ThunderPack Revision-2, Generation-2 (R2G2) rocketbelt was demonstrated by a "ThunderMan" who flew by manipulating controls in each hand that were attached to a backpack that held fuel composed of a form of hydrogen peroxide [7]. Seeing a man blast off a deck, fly around 50′ overhead and zoom back to land was thrilling. Even if it was only for less than 30 seconds.

The "ThunderMan" flying the demo was sponsored by Go Fast Sports, a company that produces highly caffeinated sports drinks, which are advertised as "energy supplements." Go Fast Sports has a stable of extreme sports athletes as their spokespeople, including jet pack pilots as part of their Jet Pack International program [8]. At the Q & A, for the ThunderPack demo, the ThunderMan seemed very…well, caffeinated. He takes so many flights, I was seriously wondering how long his renal function would be working due to the adrenaline rush from the short flights and the risk involved in taking each one. 

The ThunderMan was a hired gun to fly — an ex-stuntman turned rocket pack operator. He seemed to know nothing of the science behind his craft, but really knew how to fly it. The whole scene, with the big tractor trailer truck for “Go Fast Sports,” the rock music, and ThunderMan's Nascar looking outfit, struck me as a cross between a sideshow and a horse race, with the ThunderMan halfway between a jockey and racehorse. Highly strung, physically fit, jittery, and farmed out to risk his life. To be fair, the ThunderMan seemed to love flying the jet pack and seeing him fly was amazing. However, at the Q&A after the flight, I really got uncomfortable. It was open to questions and I asked the jet man how he trained, what he did to restore his adrenal function after several flights in a row, and if he ever just got really tired and collapsed.

Unfortunately, all he heard was my asking as part of the preparation question if he took caffeine, and he used my entire question as a pitch for the “Go Fast Sports” drinks. However, he was alert and present for the remaining questions. The ThunderMan could rattle out the numbers and ratios and seconds he could fly at what speed for how much height and distance and how he could work out getting back. He was almost a savant about those numbers, which are his lifeline. He was narrowly focused — like a racehorse.

ThunderMan looked like Skeletor. My friend pointed out that maybe he was thin to stay light so that he could go further on the fuel (the pack I saw goes for 35 to 45 seconds with a standard pilot weight of 160 lbs. [7]. I hope so. I felt very worried for him. He was doing what he loved, but there didn’t seem to be any monitoring of his health or welfare or well being. Just put on the suit, put on the pack, fly the loop and 3 hours later do it again. It seemed that ThunderMan's vulnerability in so many ways was visible. The guy was heroic for even trying it.

I wasn't sure what to think of the whole thing. The ThunderMan ThunderPack rocketbelt flight was an awesome experience to witness, but the ThunderMan got me wondering about what the human body is designed to do, and what it can withstand. Are humans built to travel by jet pack?

For one thing, we weigh too much and are weak. The pack itself, with fuel weighs 164 lbs. with a take-off weight estimated at 350 lbs. [7]. The average person is not going to be able to strap on a 150+ pound pack. For another, even if we could strap on a pack and get airborne, our chances of a smooth flight without crashing into each other is highly limited. Plus it only lasts 35-45 seconds.  

There are new contenders in jet pack development, with new designs, and new demos. On December 8, 2015, Martin Jetpack gave successful demonstration of the Kuang-Chi Martin Jetpack [8] to the press with an intent to produce commercial jetpack shipments in 2016 [9]. The Martin Jetpack is the most 'drone looking' of jetpacks I've seen to date, featuring a protective 'cage' frame for the pilot and a distribution of fuel in side tanks rather than a backpack style as was featured about 7 years ago.
This is where the Martin Jetpack shows marked improvement in that the fuel is distributed along the frame that encases the pilot and that the Martin Jetpack flights can last up to 35 minutes. The progress between the two machines is palpable.

However, it is still unrealistic to expect the average consumer to strap on a jetpack and fly. This is wishful thinking at best. These days, people can’t even walk down a crowded street without running into one another.  About as much adrenaline as I could take in the city, was when I lived in Manhattan and walked home up 5th Avenue at rush hour. Adding a jet pack to the already loaded stressful feeling most people are having in these mobile times seems like a recipe for disaster — particularly when it is combined with hundreds of other people doing the same thing at the same time. This is excluding the likelihood of us texting while we fly our jet packs whilst taking selfies as we simultaneously try to navigate around the delivery drones disrupting the airspace that we are also disrupting. Much has to happen for jet packs to become a commercial success.

With every generation, we get closer to having the jet pack technology more refined and the proposed uses become more real. The technology does evolve, but even at the current 30 minute flight, there is a long way to go.

Jet packs may be coming to a city near you, but it is unlikely you’ll be piloting one. At the moment, the closest people will get to getting a boost to get where they need to go, will probably be from drinking “Go Fast Sports” drinks. 

Note: This article was adapted from a September 7, 2008 blog post by the author. The link to the original article can be found here: trends.wordpress.com/2008/09/07/spirit-in-the-sky/


Photo credits: Christopher St. Peter, Assistant Airport Manager, San Mateo County Airports


[1] MacGregor, J. 2015. The Ill-Fated History of the Jet Pack. Smithsonian Magazine (available on-line: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/smithsonian-institution/ill-fated-history-jetpack-180955294/?no-ist, accessed 13 December 2015).

[2] Seasteading.org, 2015. Floating City Project | The Seasteading Institute (available on-line: http://www.seasteading.org/floating-city-project/, accessed 13 December 2015).

[3] Golson, J. 2015. Patent Application Reveals New Details About Amazon’s Drone. Wired.com (available on-line: http://www.wired.com/2015/05/patent-application-reveals-new-details-amazons-drone/, accessed 13 December 2015).

[4] Applin, S. 2015. Amazon Prime Drones - PolySocial Reality. Posr.org (available on-line: http://posr.org/wiki/Amazon_Prime_Drones, accessed 13 December 2015).

[5] Lehto, S. 2013. The great American jet pack. Chicago: Chicago Review Press.

[6] Thunderman.net, 2015a. Thunderbolt Aerosystems: Jetpacks, Rocketbelts, and Flying Platform Manufacturer (available on-line: http://thunderman.net, accessed 13 December 2015).

[7] Thunderman.net, 2015b. Thunderbolt Aerosystems | Mission Statement (available on-line: http://www.thunderman.net/products/TP-R2G2.php, accessed 13 December 2015).

[8] Jet Pack International, 2015. About - Jetpack International (available on-line: http://www.jetpackinternational.com/about/, accessed 13 December 2015).

[9] RT, 2015. First commercial jetpack unveiled, to hit stores in 2016 (available on-line: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BzQNrutRj38, accessed 13 December 2015).

[10] PRNewswire, 2015. KuangChi Martin Jetpack Debuts in China. Prnewswire.com (available on-line: http://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/kuangchi-martin-jetpack-debuts-in-china-300189553.html, accessed 13 December 2015). 







Bronislaw #01

Sally A. Applin

Sally Applin is a Doctoral Candidate at the University of Kent at Canterbury, UK, in the Centre for Social Anthropology and Computing (CSAC). She is based in Sillicon Valley, where she researches the impact of technology on culture and how culture shapes current technological developments. Her research is focused on Maker culture, leading-edge technological development and deployment, and the outcomes of network complexities as modeled by PolySocial Reality (PoSR.org). Sally holds an MA from the graduate Interactive Telecommunications Program (NYU/ITP) within New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, and a BA in Conceptual Design from San Francisco State University. Ms. Applin has had a 20+ year career in the science museum design, computer software, telecommunications, and product design/definition industries working as a Senior Researcher, Senior UX Designer, Senior Consultant and Ethnographer. Sally is a founding member of AnthroPunk, a movement that examines how people promote, manage, resist and endure change and is also a member of IoT Council, a think tank for the Internet of Things as well as a member of the Board of Directors of the Edward H. and Rosamond B. Spicer Foundation. Sally conducts research, writes about, and has given talks on ubiquitous automated services, automated vehicles, drones, robotics and human agency, Augmented Reality, and the Internet of Things (IoT), Privacy, Security, contextual mobility, geolocative media, process design, and maker culture.

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BronislawMagazine of provocative open-ended anthropological debate

Who are we? Bronislaw is an online magazine of new anthropological thought and debate. Our main purpose is in one hand to help disseminating anthropological research to a broader public, but in so doing, also to create a space where anthropologists can go beyond the limited frames of academic publishing and allow themselves to develop thoughts and questions that have arisen during research, to broaden fieldwork-based reflections, to expose developing ideas to community debate, or even to join into other contemporary anthropological debates by replying to essays published here or elsewhere.

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