Jet pack technology is surging ahead, but it needs a little boost

In 2020, not all cars will be flying cars, unlike what we were promised just a couple of years ago, but are personal jet packs any closer to reality?

Believe it or not, there has been some progress in this field, and some of it doesn’t involve police hoverbikes that could slice up pedestrians. Just in the past two years, Gravity Industries (named for the thing it’s trying to fight) has advanced from sketches to prototypes of a personal jet suit, kind of like the one you saw in “RoboCop 3” if you saw “RoboCop 3” at all. (It was not the best of “RoboCop” films — let’s put it that way).

Gravity Industries has taken the miniaturized jet approach to making humans levitate in midair, which is both the good news and the bad news. The good news is that five small jet engines generate about 1,000 hp, with two small jets on each arm for directional maneuvering, and one larger one in a backpack. The bad news is that because these jets use fuel, you have to carry all of that liquid with you, which weighs you down, and the jets run out of fuel in three or four minutes. But let’s face it — four minutes is better than zero minutes — we’ve run the math.

We have more good news and bad news. The good news is that you can buy one in a department store in London and learn to fly it in a couple days. The bad news is that it costs $440,000. But as an alternative to another supercar, it’s probably a little more thrilling, even if that thrill comes in short bursts.

Richard Browning is the inventor behind the jet suit, and the company is constantly working on improving the flight dynamics, especially when it comes to flight control. The directional jets worn on the hands seem like they’re a bit limiting — what if you want to scratch your nose midflight? Perhaps these directional jets can just be replaced by hoses spewing out compressed gas stored in a cylinder and save some weight.

Unlike the various flying car startups from five years ago, the jet suit’s makers are realistic about the mass market potential of its invention — they’re not promising that you’ll be commuting in one of these by 2020. Or even by 2030. And there is still a long way to go before anyone will be able to reenact scenes from Iron Man for more than four minutes at a time. But the tech is certainly taking baby steps in the right direction, and if there is a common theme to any mode of transportation, it is that energy storage is the single biggest stumbling block at the moment. Like it or not, it takes an absurd amount of energy to levitate a human and the jet pack itself for just a few minutes.

The alternative to liquid fuel is batteries, but just like in electric cars, they often weigh more than a tank full of gas and an internal combustion engine. Battery tech will have to experience some kind of revolutionary breakthrough to catch up to the weight/running time ratio for a jet pack, or anything else really. Will solid-state batteries provide that boost, along with lighter weight? Time will tell, but we’re a little more excited about their potential in jet packs than in electric cars at the moment. Perhaps the $440,000 price of entry is akin to the premium early adopters for everything else inevitably pay.