Could the Martin Jetpack really be about to take off?

Could the Martin Jetpack really be about to take off?
Idealog talks to Martin Aircraft about its first big Jetpack contract – with Dubai civil defence. And we find out how the legendary flying machine could actually help in an emergency.

Seems like the idea of the Martin Jetpack has been around forever – the butt of wisecracks and back-to-childhood secret longings. The announcement that the company has done its first deal – a memorandum of understanding for 20 Jetpacks and two simulators, plus training and maintenance, signed with the United Arab Emirates’ civil defence and fire service earlier this month, suddenly brings the jetpack into “shit, they might really be going somewhere with this thing” territory.

Martin Aircraft CEO Peter Coker signing the deal at the Dubai Airshow

And this deal isn’t small bikkies. Jetpacks sell for around $US200,000 apiece, says Martin Aircraft CEO Peter Coker. So that’s a starting price around $US4 million, even without the add-ons. OK, as Wired.com pointed out in a somewhat acerbic article entitled “Dubai is seriously buying Jetpacks for its firefighters. Seriously”, having lots of money and having the nous to spend it wisely don’t always go together. But Coker says Dubai isn’t the only MOU on the table. For example, there’s one with US security and disaster recovery company Avwatch, and discussions going on with a company in China around personal jetpacks.

Commercial production of the Jetpack will start in the middle of next year from a factory in Christchurch, Coker says, with 45 craft being produced in the July 2016-June 2017 financial year, ramping up to 500 a year within the first three years. The first Jetpacks will arrive with customers towards the end of 2016. There are also discussions going on with Martin Aircraft's Chinese investor, metamaterials company Kuang Chi, about a China-based production facility. That plant could make up to 1000 Jetpacks a year if the Chinese market takes off, Coker says.

Photo courtesy of the BBC

All good, but enough of all this numbers stuff. What Idealog really wanted when we spoke to Peter Coker, was the low-down on how those UAE firefighters and civil defence heroes plan to use our famous Kiwi-made jetpacks in an emergency. Here's how:

Idealog: So there’s a fire in one of those huge Dubai skyscrapers, and there is a family screaming for help from the 43rd floor window. Where does the Jetpack come in?

Peter Coker: You might have a firefighter go up to the window in a Jetpack and he’s got five unmanned Jetpacks electronically tethered to him. As soon as he arrives outside the window he takes his hands off his Jetpack controls and starts moving one of the unmanned ones remotely. His own Jetpack just stays exactly where it was, and he can rescue the people using the unmanned ones. The unmanned Jetpacks could take people down to the ground, or be programmed to take them automatically to a hospital or rescue centre.

What if one of the people is injured and can’t stand in the Jetpack?

Like with a helicopter rescue, you can sling a basket from the Jetpack and move them that way.

Can you take really heavy people?

At the moment a Jetpack can only carry 120kg, but we are working with Kuang Chi to use some of its disruptive materials technology to reduce the weight of the Jetpack itself in the future, so it can carry heavier loads.

Stupid question alert. Isn’t a Jetpack carrying lots of fuel? Wouldn’t it blow up in a fire?

The Jetpack is powered by an engine much like a straightforward two-stroke outboard motor, so obviously it isn’t built to go flying into flames. People being rescued would have to be in a position they weren’t surrounded by fire. Like on top of the building. Still look at firemen. They go into burning buildings with compressed air and oxygen tanks.

What other things are the UAE civil defence people thinking about using their Jetpacks for?

1) Traffic problems. Say there is an accident on a busy road and police can’t get through the traffic with their vehicles. Jetpacks are versatile, they can land on a small area – around five square metres, so police could get in to sort out the crash site, or they could bring out injured people.

2) Crowd control. If you have a large crowd coming out of an event and there are problems, they might use it to direct the crowd. One of the advantages of a Jetpack is unlike a helicopter it is driven by two turbofan engines and doesn't have open blades, so it is safer in a crowd.

3) Disaster recovery. The Jetpack can land on a much smaller area than a helicopter, and can carry more weight than a drone, so you could use it to bring in supplies. Or you could to fly over an area to find out where survivors are and let them know that you will be coming in later with help.

4) Plane crash. We are talking to the airport fire authorities about how they could use a Jetpack in an off-airport crash.

Like in a MH17 sort of thing? Could you search for missing aircraft?

Not really. With a 120kg load, the present model of Jetpack can travel for around 30-45 minutes, that’s up to about 40 kilometres.

Apart from emergency response stuff, who else could use a Jetpack?

The first responder market is our first target, but once we start getting our product out of the door, then we will be looking at the oil, commercial and agricultural market. Oil exploration people have to go to desolate places where it’s hard to take a vehicle. And you could use a Jetpack to round up cattle, say – it’s cheaper than a helicopter. The third market is for the personal Jetpack. Initially we’d probably go through flying clubs.

What about Jetpack commuting?

I see an opportunity in the future for third-generation travel – "Highways in the sky" sort of thing. But that will depend on how quickly regulators move. I’d like to be flying to work in my Jetpack. We are already working very closely with regulatory authorities in New Zealand and are certified as a microlight aircraft. At the moment anyone with a microlight pilot’s licence could fly one, but we want to create a separate licence category for the Jetpack in the future.

What are the three craziest Jetpack ideas out there so far?

We were approached by a skydiving club. They wanted to go up in Jetpack and then jump out and the Jetpack could come down on its own. Then there’s an idea around romantic lunches on remote beaches. Instead of using a helicopter you’d have a driver and two electronically tethered unmanned ones with the couple in. The driver would land all three Jetpacks on the beach, unload the passengers and the food, then go away and come back when the couple was ready to leave. Oh, and Uber has talked to us. That’s quite a fantasy idea.