May 29, 2011 at 4:41 PM ET
A real-life jetpack passed a key test this month by soaring to a height of 5,000 feet, deploying an emergency parachute and drifting back down to New Zealand's Canterbury Plains.
"This successful test brings the future another step closer," Glenn Martin, the jetpack's inventor and founder of the New Zealand-based Martin Aircraft Co., said in a statement issued today.
Martin Aircraft says the previous altitude record for the fan-driven, wearable aircraft was 50 feet (15 meters). Sending a test pilot 100 times higher sounds like a scary proposition, and that's why the May 21 parachute test was unmanned. Instead, a dummy weighing as much as a human operator was put into the jetpack. The contraption was radio-controlled from a helicopter flying nearby.
The point of the exercise was to put the jetpack's emergency landing system to the test. The engine cut out at an altitude of 3,000 feet (900 meters), and then an off-the-shelf ballistic parachute popped out to slow the speed of descent. The jetpack hit the ground with a velocity of 15.7 mph (25.2 kilometers per hour), Martin Aircraft reported.
"The aircraft sustained some damage on impact, but we would expect that it is likely a pilot would have walked away from this emergency landing," the company said.
The jetpack pushed the envelope for climb rate (800 feet per minute or 4 meters per second, with the capability to rise even faster) and flight duration (9 minutes and 46 seconds). "This test also validated our flight model, proved thrust to weight ratio and proved our ability to fly a jetpack as an unmanned aerial vehicle, which will be key to some of the jetpack’s future emergency/search and rescue and military applications," Glenn Martin said.
The company expects the jetpack's first buyers to be military and emergency-response agencies — which might well be looking for ways to send in a remote-controlled aircraft capable of delivery, surveillance or extraction in situations that are too dangerous for more traditional conveyances.
Martin Aircraft's CEO, Richard Lauder, said the next steps in development will include improvements in the emergency parachute system, engine performance and high-speed flight stability.
The Martin jetpack project was unveiled almost three years ago at the EAA AirVenture air show in Wisconsin. The company says it's targeting an initial price tag of $100,000 for the recreational version of the vehicle. If the venture really does take off commercially, I could imagine jetpack rides becoming one of the offerings for recreational fliers, alongside hang-gliding adventures, ultralight airplane rides and balloon tours. Would you strap in? How much would you pay? Feel free to weigh in with your comments below.
More on jetpacks and other dreams of flight:
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