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The Martin Jetpack is not, technically, a jetpack. With an empty weight of around 440 pounds (200 kilograms), this one-person aircraft is something that you step into rather than strap on, and it relies for thrust on belt-driven ducted fans, rather than the streams of hot gases that propel the rocket-packs familiar from science fiction movies. But while purists may quibble with the name, the Martin Jetpack offers all of the excitement of flying a jetpack, while also providing notable safety features including structural protection for the pilot and a ballistic parachute. Unlike most jetpack prototypes, it also has a realistic path to market.
To get it there, the investors behind Martin Aircraft Co. are targeting an unexpected audience: first responders and homeland security agencies. Those aren’t the customers that the aircraft’s inventor, Glenn Martin, had in mind when he began tinkering with his first prototypes in Christchurch, New Zealand, in the 1980s and ’90s. As Martin has explained in other interviews, he always intended for his aircraft to serve a recreational market, delivering on the promise of personal jetpacks in 1960s-era science fiction.
Martin Aircraft’s current management maintains that it hasn’t abandoned that dream — indeed, the company recently teamed up with sporting equipment manufacturer Oakley and pro golfer Bubba Watson to develop the concept of a Golf Cart Jetpack. In the near term, however, the company’s directors see a more promising launch market among police, fire, and other public agencies, which are likely to have the resources as well as the regulatory flexibility necessary to operate a never-before-certified aircraft type.
To court that market, Christchurch-based Martin Aircraft and its U.S. partner, Avwatch Incorporated, brought a Martin Jetpack prototype and simulator to this year’s Airborne Law Enforcement Association (ALEA) Expo, July 20-22 in Savannah, Georgia. There, interested attendees received a quick introduction to the aircraft’s flight controls —the left hand controls altitude, while the right hand joystick uses intuitive movements to control pitch, roll, and yaw — then went for a spin in the full-motion simulator with the aid of a virtual-reality headset.
Once in the sim, some potential applications for the Martin Jetpack were immediately apparent. As Michael Read, Martin Aircraft vice president of flight operations, explained, “Our specialty is flying in and around people and buildings.” The Jetpack is a speedy way for first responders to reach the tops of tall buildings, including some ledges that would be inaccessible by helicopter. Without a large-diameter rotor disc to worry about, they can hover directly in front of windows, while the stability built into the aircraft’s fly-by-wire flight control system allows them to free their hands for other tasks — such as placing plastic explosives around a window frame in order to effect entry.
According to Avwatch’s Clay “Jungle” Bernardi, however, these examples are just the tip of the iceberg, as agencies are likely to find new and innovative uses for the aircraft in the field. “We think the use cases will be developed around the technology,” he said.
Martin Aircraft is currently working with New Zealand’s Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) and the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to develop a certification pathway for this unique aircraft type. In May, the CAA awarded Experimental Airworthiness Certificates for two prototype Jetpacks (ZK-JMK and ZK-JML). According to Read, because the aircraft does not fit into existing regulations, the company is aiming to obtain a restricted category type certificate using a blend of Federal Aviation Regulations (e.g. part 27 – normal category rotorcraft), eventually followed by full type certification.
“We’re working very closely with regulators to pave the way for this technology,” Read said. “The big thing for us long-term is to create a new category [for this aircraft or similar].”
In the meantime, the company is also modifying the aircraft to incorporate a 200-horsepower Rotron rotary engine from U.K.-based Gilo Industries Group Ltd., which will replace the two-stroke V4 engine used in previous prototypes.
“The rotary engine really makes sense for this aircraft,” said Read, predicting that the high power-to-weight ratio of the Rotron engine — an adaptation of engines now being used in unmanned aerial vehicles — will boost the aircraft’s performance.
In 2017, Martin Aircraft is aiming to meet the maximum takeoff weight for the Jetpack of 705 pounds (320 kilograms), giving it a payload of 265 lbs (120 kg). Its range is estimated at 18 to 30 miles (29 to 48 kilometers), with a maximum airspeed of 40 knots and a cruise speed of 31 knots.
The maximum ceiling for the Jetpack is presently established at 3,000 feet above sea level. However, that’s really “a conservative line in the sand,” said Read, noting that further flight testing should expand the Jetpack’s flight envelope. The aircraft’s fly-by-wire flight controls also open the door for remotely piloted applications, making the aircraft an optionally piloted vehicle. With multiple Jetpacks potentially able to fly in formation via electronic tether, first responders could conceivably use fleets of Jetpacks to evacuate victims in natural disasters and other emergency situations.
The estimated price for the Martin Jetpack is currently around US$300,000. Although the certification and delivery schedule has slipped from original targets, the company is projecting first deliveries in early 2017. Said Read, “It’s going to be great for the industry and great for society to get this technology out there.”