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Where's my jetpack?

By Dean Irvine for CNN
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LONDON, England (CNN) -- Weren't jetpacks going to be one of the most thrilling parts of our future? After popping a protein pill for breakfast, we would then strap on our personal rocket packs and fly ourselves to our paperless offices in no time. But seven years into the 21st century and only 17 people have flown a jetpack. Apart from the occasional sighting as a novelty at a sporting event or motor show, it appears that jetpacks are permanently grounded.

But a band of do-it-yourself rocket men and women are keeping the dream alive of being a modern day Daedalus, while a company in the U.S. is developing a personal flying machine with a greater range and speed than anything that has gone before.

The jetpack leapt off the pages of a Buck Rogers comic and became a reality when Wendell Moore an engineer at Bell Aerospace in the USA developed the Rocket Belt, gaining its first successful flight in 1961.

Perhaps "flight" is being generous. Even though it could accelerate faster than a Formula 1 car, it only had a maximum time in the air of 30 seconds. With such a limited range, U.S. military interest, and funding, waned and NASA, who had thought about using them on their Apollo missions did not commit to the project. Jetpacks have stuttered to get off the ground ever since.

"Personal jetpacks are still unlikely for anyone other than stunt-actors any time soon. What's missing is the technology and power supply part of things. Things are getting better, but you need more than just an affordable engine that performs reliably," Paul Saffo, technology forecaster told CNN.

This hasn't stopped a committed band of amateur engineers continuing to build, and attempt to fly, their own homemade models. The designs haven't altered much since the first Bell Rocket Belt. In fact they're not really powered by rockets at all.

Jetpacks use hydrogen peroxide as fuel, a propellant that when mixed with nitrogen produces a chemical reaction resulting in pressurized steam giving the rocket belt its thrust.

While the hydrogen peroxide is non-combustible, flying a jetpack is still not for the faint-hearted. When mixed with pressurized nitrogen it creates a chemical reaction and forces out steam at about 750 degrees centigrade. Two tanks of hydrogen peroxide provide enough fuel for a 30 second flight. Fully kitted up today's jetpack still weighs around 125 lbs but can still generate a substantial grunt of 800 horsepower.

And they're not easy to fly. Bill Suitor one of the Bell Aerospace's original test pilots and the man who flew into the opening ceremony of the 1984 Olympic Games described the experience of flying with a rocket belt like "trying to stand on a beach ball in a swimming pool."

"One of the hardest part is mastering the navigation. People driving in a car on a flat surface often have a tough enough time. Imagine adding to that more degrees of mobility then trying to control that in rush hour traffic maneuvering around other people with personal jetpacks," said Paul Saffo.

Like most things then, the fantasy is better than the reality, but there still may be a future for personal airborne vehicles, and it may lie with more conventional jet engines or fan ducts.

Experiments with real jet engines on jetpacks have been few and far between, even though Bell Aerospace built and tested a rocket belt with a kerosene engine in 1968. It was more reliable and had a longer range, but the designs were sold to Williams International who develops small jet engines for missiles. Unsurprisingly divulging the patents and secrets of that technology to fulfil a generation's childhood dreams of becoming rocket men and women has not been forthcoming.

The cruise missiles gain then was the jetpack's loss, and a suitable, small engine has yet to be built to take its place.

"People haven't been building jet belts that run on kerosene and use an air-breathing engine, because there just isn't the reliability you need," Peter Gijsbert, organizer of the Rocket Belt Convention that will be held in Niagara in August this year, told CNN.

Despite their 50-year-old design, hydrogen peroxide packs are seen to be reliable, at least in getting a chemical reaction.

However one company have gone back to the drawing board in their reworking of a personal flying vehicle. Trek Aerospace, a company based in California, has built the Springtail Exoskeleton Vehicle.

Using two ducted fans powered by a small engine, it is more of a platform than a backpack, which the pilot would be strapped into. If the design takes off, they could be used for all manner of applications from air rescue vehicles to igniting a new form of extreme sports.

In 2001 an earlier form of the Springtail developed by the now defunct Millennium Jets attracted funding from DARPA, but technical failures meant the Solo Trek personal flying vehicle ended up on ebay rather than the battlefields when the company went bust.

Trek Aerospace believes they've solved the previous problems of stability and have built and tested the Springtail, again with military application in mind. It might weigh almost double a hydrogen peroxide jetpack and stand at over 8 feet tall, but on one tank of fuel it can cruise at about 100mph with a range of 184 miles.

"Personal turbofan platforms like Trek will arrive within the next decade. Trek is the existence proof one can do these things, and it has obvious commercial applications as a substitute for helicopters," said Saffo.

What may become a more common sight in our skies is a new generation of unmanned personal vehicles. Even Trek Aerospace believe that their unmanned air vehicle has greater potential, once again for surveillance and military use.

Putting boyhood dreams aside, Paul Saffo still believes the jetpack, in one form or another, will be seen careering across our skies in the future.

"It may seem like it's just a bunch of guys playing around with flying machines at the moment, but that is exactly how we started our trip to the moon. Personal flying machines, be they jetpacks or other vehicles, will happen, just don't hold your breath."


Bill Suitor pilots his jetpack at the opening ceremony of the 1984 Olympic Games, but the technology has failed to really take off.


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