Picture a jetpack. If you’re like me, when you imagine a jetpack, your mind goes to some sort of science fiction, imagining an intrepid hero blasting away on an alien planet and traveling in three dimensions. Perhaps instead “jetpack” conjures a James Bond flick, or the real navigational tool used by astronauts sometimes in space walks. Maybe, just maybe, the image of jetpack invokes something like the device piloted by Richard M. Browning, which he debuted in a video for Red Bull last March. In the release video, Browning, an ex-Royal Marine reservist, wears a large contraption on his back with a pair of thrusters on the bottom, and then holds a pair of thrusters in each hand. He moves through the air, low and sort of wobbly, with his movements editing like an action flick as much as anything else.
This week in Mumbai, Browning flew his jetpack before a crowd, demonstrating a minute of flight time with an altitude that appears roughly 4 to 7 feet above the ground. It’s novel, and delightful, and speaks to a future that seems equal parts inevitable and lost forever: what if people could fly, on their own?
The particulars of Gravity, Browning’s personal flight company, and Browning himself are not the most pertinent details for us today. The question, the big question, for anyone looking at jetpacks as anything other than a novelty or toy for daredevils, is *what* can be done with a jetpack. Gravity’s stated aim is “commercial and entertainment applications, but here at C4ISRNET, I want to take a stab at another area that might be deeply interested in personal flight: military applications.
Video games often envision battles where at least some combatants travel by jetpack. In order to match the utility shown in those worlds, a real-life jetpack would need to carry a marine, complete with kit, for a minute or two at a time and possibly longer, and over a great distance, enough to bypass walls or up steep cliffs. While some jetpacks can carry people for up to a minute, like Browning’s flight above, the distances and the loads are usually light, and often the pilots hands are full during the flight, which makes visions of fantasy war unlikely with present technology, to say the least.
In the past and up to the present, when the U.S. military has pursued individual or two-person flying machines, it’s looked more at small weird rotorcraft, with only the occasional glance towards jetpacks. So “jetpack infantry” is almost certainly out, but what about scouting? Surely there’s some utility in a flying scout, nimbly going where other people can’t, and reporting back what they see?
Well, yes, but: listen to that clip again of Browning flying in Mumbai. That jetpack is loud, likely loud enough to give away the position of any scouts. And it’s also belching fire, which makes it a hazard near anything remotely flammable. Flames aren’t a guarantee with every jetpack-like device, but the noise is likely a problem inherent to the whole field, and one that could be a fatal weakness.
And besides, this is a job that is already done by robots. Something small, portable, capable of scouting over the next hill, or around that building, or a little bit further down the road? That’s something drones can do, from the RQ-11 Raven to cheap quadcopters, with all the advantages of a flying jetpack and none of the weaknesses of an attached human body to worry about.