Flying the dream: Martin Aircraft puts jetpack joyrides within reach

From the James Bond jet belt to a "Jetsons"-inspired "motorbike in the sky," one New Zealand company is bringing the dream of jetpack travel to reality -- and thanks to a significant new investment, it could be here sooner than you think.

The Martin Jetpack. Martin Aircraft Company

When it comes to the future of personal travel, the team behind the Martin Jetpack envisions a world where we won't be stuck in cars, limited by the size and flight constraints of helicopters or even forced to take the elevator up to our next meeting -- as a society, we'll be able to travel on "highways in the sky."

If Martin Aircraft has its way, where we're going, we won't need roads.

The New Zealand company behind the Martin Jetpack could well be a step closer to achieving this dream thanks to a major investment from Chinese R&D company KuangChi Science, which announced the purchase of a controlling stake in Martin late last year -- a significant injection of funds that will allow the company to take the Jetpack from prototype to reality.

It comes at a busy time for Martin, which has just listed on the Australian Securities Exchange, raising AU$27 million ($21 million, £13.6 million) through the IPO. The invention that started life as a late-night project in a New Zealand garage could soon be coming to garages around the world.

But it's not just funding that KuangChi brings to the table. The Chinese company has already established itself as a world leader in metamaterials -- artificial materials that have the potential to make aircraft lighter and more aerodynamic -- as well as aeronautical technology in the near-space environment. For Martin, all these elements come together to create a perfect partnership that will help bring the Martin Jetpack to commercial buyers and everyday consumers much quicker.

According to Martin Aircraft CEO Peter Coker, all this means a major shift in the way the average person can think about jetpacks.

"When we originally started we said, 'We're flying the dream,'" said Coker. "Well, the dream is actually here now."

A jetpack in every garage

That dream started making headlines when founder of the Martin Aircraft Company, New Zealander Glenn Martin, first revealed his jetpack prototype to the world at Wisconsin's Oshkosh air show in 2008.

From the kernel of an idea in 1981, Glenn Martin spent years researching and developing jetpack technology, fine-tuning prototypes and even convincing his wife Vanessa to act as a test pilot. Martin was looking to get away from the hydrogen peroxide-powered jet belts seen in films such as "Thunderball" and to find a practical way to get sustained flight beyond the one-minute mark.

The solution was a large carbon-fibre and aluminium vehicle, powered by a 2-litre, 200-horsepower petrol engine, with 2 ducted fans to provide lift and directional control. A fly-by-wire computer system allows the pilot to demand a position which the jetpack then flies to, meaning that, unlike a helicopter, if the pilot's hands come off the controls, the jetpack will simply hover and wait for further instruction.

The Martin jetpack can carry a 120-kilogram payload for 30 minutes, reach a maximum altitude of 3,000 feet, and because it doesn't have a helicopter's large rotor system or bulky dimensions, the jetpack can go places other vehicles cannot.

In its current form, the Martin Jetpack can fly for up to 30 minutes. Martin Aircraft Company

It is for this very reason that Martin CEO Peter Coker said the jetpack shifted from being a luxury vehicle for the recreational market, as it was initially envisioned, into a much more practical device.

"The [jetpacks] that people tend to associate themselves with are the ones from James Bond," said Coker. "But when Glenn Martin invented this, he was looking at the "Jetsons" equivalent where it's a mode of transport of some utility."

As a result, Martin Aircraft is now targeting a number of fields including commercial buyers in the oil and gas industry as well as community services such as "fire, police, ambulance, border security, natural disaster recovery and search and rescue".

The applications are immediately apparent -- from sending first-responders into a bushfire to make decisions in a rapidly-developing situation, to sending out jetpack-mounted cameras to get a real-time view of a disaster zone. Martin is also looking at unmanned jetpacks that can be used to move logistics in emergency situations or sent in groups to rescue casualties from a natural disaster.

But while there are plenty of customers clamouring for jetpacks to solve practical problems, Martin is not a company to shy away from the big picture. For Coker, the jetpack has the potential to revolutionise the way we think about vehicles and travel, bringing us closer to the world of aerial highways.

"What we're effectively creating is three-dimensional travel," Coker said. "The people who go out to their car in their garage, start it up and then drive down the road to the traffic lights -- what you'll be seeing is people getting into their jetpack in the garage, starting it up, flying out of the garage straight to work, and leaving it there.

"In places like Manhattan, even places in China where there are very high-rise buildings, you'll see people with jetpacks on the top of the buildings. Rather than going to a meeting down the lifts and on the subway, they'll just take a jetpack and go from one tall building to another."

Where's my jetpack?

Before we start jetting off to our morning meetings in the company of birds, Martin needs to get its first jetpacks out to customers, and this is where KuangChi's funding is integral. As Coker says, any R&D company needs to eventually reach the "tipping point of commercialisation" -- and now Martin Aircraft has the investment backing to do so.

The plan is to get the first product out to commercial customers, including first-responders, in the third quarter of 2016, followed "very quickly" by an unmanned air vehicle version. Production will start with a capacity of 500 per year out of New Zealand itself, with a view towards growing the supply chain and developing other assembly areas around the world.

Inside the jetpack engine. Martin Aircraft Company

As far as future growth is concerned, Martin is also looking at products such as a simulator, not only to train jetpack pilots, but also for entertainment and corporate hospitality clients, as well as a "jetpack experience" for the tourism market. By 2017, Martin also expects to have a "personal jetpack" on the market. And at $200,000 it's not an unreasonable price to ask for the commuter who has everything.

If that's outside your budget, you won't necessarily need to own a jetpack to have your own joyride.

"You could look to the future and you could call them unmanned taxis in the sky," said Coker. "Uber would have another different viewpoint on this one! You could actually dial up a jetpack to come and pick you up."

But while we could see jetpacks in suburban garages and skyscrapers, Coker said "you just never know" what the future could hold.

"I think Moore's Law is going to be taking us to areas that we can't even consider right now."

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