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Jetpack: the vehicle of the future?

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to try out a piece of technology that few have experienced -- the jetpack.

(Credit: Jetlev)

It was a promotional event for the launch of the NRMA's website, run by Jetpacks Australia. How many times in life do you get the chance to ride on a jetpack? I leapt at the opportunity, quelling the misgivings that arose from the indemnity waiver informing me that the activity could cause permanent death -- the worst kind of death.

The morning was bright and sunny, the smell of fuel from the pump engines hanging heavily in the air. Competition winners queued up in wetsuits at the edge of Dawn Fraser Pool in Balmain, while a man in shorts and knee-length socks barbecued bacon and eggs.

It was exciting. I was nervous.

It took a couple of hours for my turn to come, and I slipped into the icy water to be strapped in to the pack. A helmet, containing waterproof speakers so that the instructor could give directions, was slipped over my head. It was too big. Another helmet was found. Then padded. And then cinched so tight that I was almost choking.

Now, dear reader, I am not a large person. The jetpack rose above the back of my head, which I had to hold forward because of the helmet. And when I had to face forward in the water and Jetpacks Australia supplied thrust to the jetpack, my face went under the surface and stayed there. I tried to flip, but in my ear, the instructor was saying, "face forward. Face forward. Arms up". It ran counter to every survival instinct in my body.

That was it for me. I popped the safety harness and waded, bedraggled and shivering, to the shore.

I've been turning the event over and over in my head. I love technology. I think jetpacks are super-cool. I was going to be like Batman. Instead, I lost my nerve. But you know, I think I'm actually okay with it.

Now, I need to specify, the activity wasn't unsafe. Around 40 others got into the jetpack and had what looked like an amazing time. There were safety personnel on hand, the aforementioned instructor, and a lovely fellow controlling the power and thrust of the jetpacks via remote control. Nonetheless, when my head went into the water, I didn't feel comfortable continuing.

Technology is a wonderful thing. What I love most about it is how it vastly widens our ability to communicate, to share ideas. It's taken us into space, managed illnesses that meant certain death just 50 years ago, shown us amazing microcosms and vast cosmoses invisible to the naked eye.

The Jetlev jetpack itself is really rather a simple piece of kit. There's a motor, using the same engine that you might find in a jetski, modified to pump water at a high pressure through the tubing strapped to the pilot's back. That pressure propels the wearer into the air; by moving the jets, the wearer can move forward, steer ... and crash spectacularly.

Most of the technology we use don't ask us to fight our instincts in quite the same way. The idea behind the event was: what if commuting was more fun? Riding a train, getting in a car, being jostled around on a bus -- none of these really count as "fun"; according to the NRMA, 38 per cent of commuters think that the time they spend getting to and from work is wasted time. But, while standard methods of commuting can be pretty boring, none of them test our comfort zones in a way that makes us feel like our survival is at risk, even though, technically, it is.

Some people live for thrills. That's okay. Even so, the jetpack as a mode of getting to and from work -- practical and cost considerations aside -- probably wouldn't catch on. When I shuffled, shamefaced, back into the office, my colleagues told me that they wouldn't have tried it. Maybe they were just being nice, but that seemed to be the consensus among everyone with whom I discussed my failure. (If they were all just being nice, that's awesome -- it means I know some very nice people.)

Nevertheless, even though I never even got propelled out of the water, I think the experience was a good one. I learned that I can leave my comfort zone a little bit, and that I can withdraw when I feel unsafe, even when I want, very badly, to be Batman.

As a fun activity for the thrill-seekers, the jetpack is fantastic. For more wide adoption, I think it needs a few tweaks -- a smaller frame for smaller passengers would be a good start. Still, it's a long way off. I'm okay with that, too.