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16 June 2012

Where's My Jetpack?

Where's My Jetpack is an occasional segment on Life, the Universe & Everything Else, a podcast produced by the Winnipeg Skeptics and the Humanists, Atheists, and Agnostics of Manitoba. This segment aired on 15 January 2012, as part of Episode 9: Communicating with People Who Believe Weird Things.



For decades now, scientists have been promising us untold marvels, from jetpacks to hovercars to computers that can think! But where are these wonders of technology? In Where's My Jetpack?, Old Man Newman demands answers, and our crack research team discusses the unforeseen pitfalls and setbacks facing new technology, and tells us exactly how long it will be before science fiction becomes science fact!

In this first episode of Where's My Jetpack?, Old Man Newman demands to know (appropriately enough) "Where's My Jetpack?"

Jetpacks have actually been around and functioning since the sixties, with Bell Aerosystems' "Bell Rocket Belt", fuelled by hydrogen peroxide, being among the first on the scene. Although it could travel at up to 100 km/h, the limitations of the peroxide fuel meant that it could fly for no more than 20 seconds or so, limiting its range to about 250 metres.

There are some reports that the Germans developed a jetpack-like device called the Himmelst├╝rmer during World War II; it was ostensibly to be used to make short jumps to cross minefields, but was never fully tested. Take these reports with a grain of salt however, as reliable sources are difficult to find.

More recently the "Jetman", Yves Rossy, a Swiss inventor, as developed a strap-on wing suit and jetpack. Recent news reports have him flying in formation alongside two L-39C Albatros jets from the Breitling Jet Team, which is apparently the world's largest professional civilian aerobatics squad.

There are jetpacks out there right now, but they're not commercially available, and if you're looking for something out of Rocket Robinhood then you're in for a disappointment.

Current Technological Challenges:
  • The fuel. If you're just planning to strap a jetpack on to your street clothes and you'd like to avoid setting yourself on fire, it's best to avoid using actual rocket fuel.
  • Hydrogen peroxide is a popular fuel, but the thrust-to-fuel-volume is low, making for flights of very limited duration. In addition, many companies that formerly produced the highly concentrated H2O2 required for propulsion are either out of business or no longer producing the fuel.
  • While stability was a problem in early jetpack models, this problem has largely been solved by adding physical stabilizers (wings) to the packs. Another solution is to make use of computer stabilizers which make minute adjustments to the direction of thrust to maintain stability.
  • The training required to pilot a jetpack or rocket belt is a rather unpleasant combination of expensive and dangerous.
  • The packs themselves are also prohibitively expensive, and because the other challenges mentioned here render the technology of limited usefulness, development is not proceeding apace, and commercial availability may still be a ways off.

But if your definition of jetpack is a little more flexible, then you're absolutely in luck! Looking like something directly out of Super Mario Sunshine, the JetLev R200 water-powered jetpack is able to lift a person up to thirty feet into the air, where they can hover over the waves for up to four hours.

And it'll only run you $100,000!

But when will I have my own jetpack? I predict that jetpacks will be commercially available within the next twenty years, but will require a pilot's license, be vastly more expensive than you want them to be, and will have very restricted flight over urban areas. Some other sort of human flight technology, on the other hand, is surely on its way.

References:
Soar Over Water on Your Hydro Powered Jet Pack
Man with Jetpack Races Actual Jets
Jetpack (Wikipedia)

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