A personal aircraft that requires minimal training and no pilot's license is about ready for production.
"We're trying to make the world's easiest-to-fly aircraft," Richard Lauder, chief executive of New Zealand-based Martin Aircraft Company tells Discovery News. "Our goal is to create a Segway for the sky, where the principles of flying would be very simple."
It certainly looked that way in the movies and TV shows of the 1960s and 1970s, when everyone from James Bond to Gilligan strapped on a jetpack for a thrilling change of scene.
"I think there's been an interest in this type of flying vehicle ever since man started to fly," said Dick Knapinski communications director for the Experimental Aircraft Association, a non-profit organization. "Going back to Buck Rogers in the '30s, '40s and '50s, it was assumed that within 50 years these things would have become commonplace. It hasn't gone quite as quickly. I think there's a lot more engineering in it than one might perceive."
The key problem has been what is called the "weight-to-thrust" ratio, which basically boils down to the conundrum that the heavier you are or the longer you want to stay in the air, the more power you need, which in turn means you have to carry more weight. The highly publicized Bell Rocket Belt, which was developed in the 1950s, could only fly for 30 seconds, for example.
Martin Aircraft set out to build a flying machine that would fall within U.S. aviation regulations for ultralights, defined as aircraft weighing 254 pounds or less, designed for one person, holding no more than five gallons of fuel and capable of moving at a top speed of 55 knots (63 miles per hour).
The company also is developing a heftier jetpack intended for military, emergency rescue services and other government uses, as well as a remotely piloted, unmanned version, Lauder said.
The recreational-use jetpack is expected to sell for about $100,000.
"I certainly don't think it's going to be a George Jetson-sort-of-situation here, where there's one on every block, especially when the price starts out at $100,000," Knapinski tells Discovery News. "But I think you'll see a small section of people who would like to have one of those. I would do it in a second."
Lauder, who has tested out the jetpack twice, said when you're on the ground and preparing for takeoff, there's a lot of vibration and noise.
"It shakes a lot, but when you get off the ground it gets calm. You get picked up from behind, like the hand of God, and it's very calming," he said.