Friday, August 1, 2008

Could the world see its first 'practical' jetpack?

A jetpack that might one day be able to take 30-minute jaunts across the sky got its public debut today. New Zealand company Martin Jetpack unveiled the device at the Experimental Aircraft Association's AirVenture show in Oshkosh, Wisconsin.

Applications for the pack might include some activities where a small aerial vehicle might be useful, like search-and-rescue operations and firefighting. But in the end, inventor Glenn Martin says, "people will use it for fun, as a jetski or snowmobile for the sky". At a target price of $100,000, it will be for thrill-seekers with deep pockets.

Martin has been working on the pack for 27 years, he says. But he has kept its development a secret until recently.

While the pack is powerful, it is unlikely you'll be able to barrel headfirst across the sky, Superman-style. The 113-kilogram pack is designed to lift a pilot vertically, although the company expects pitching the pack slightly could enable it to move horizontally at more than 97 kilometres per hour (60 miles per hour), the limit for experimental ultra-light craft.

Today's demonstration drew a large crowd. Many were hoping that Martin's 16-year-old son, Harrison, who piloted the pack, would be performing figure-eights. But for the safety of onlookers, two men held the pack down; it lifted off vertically and only cleared the ground by several feet (see video).

The craft sounds much like a high-powered lawnmower, and it created enough wind to blast sand on the concrete ground at nearby onlooker's feet and cameras.

'Jetpack' may not be the most accurate term for Martin's device. The pack is actually run by a water-cooled, piston engine, similar to a car. This drives the large downward-facing fans on either side of the pilot. Flaps at the bottom of the fans are used to direct air and steer the pack.

So far, the company has performed most of its tests 1.8 metres (6 feet) above the ground, but Martin says tests at 152 metres (500 feet) might be six months away.

The jetpack also contains safety features. The pack has a ballistic parachute which can be deployed only 30 metres (100 feet) above the ground. The undercarriage of the craft also has shock absorbers.

Jetpacks haven't been known for their safety; pilots have broken their backs flying them. But Martin has enough faith in his pack that his wife and one of his sons have tested the vehicle. Harrison says he has only crashed the pack once, when he went head-over-heels in an earlier prototype.

Original here

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