Martin Jetpack: Disruptive Technology or Just a Gimmick?


I’m quite certain my first encounter with the word “disruptive” was when Sister Claire used it in a note to my parents to describe my behavior in second grade phonics class. If only she knew the depth of her prescience, she could have made a killing in the stock market. Now, the word has taken on an entirely new meaning, attached as it usually is to another word: technology.

Disruptive technology has become a business buzzword and really is little more than two words replacing one: progress. It’s overused, often wrong and merely another means of priming the hyperbole pump when the word “exciting” seems too tame. The accepted definition of disruptive technology is that which is so revolutionary as to displace or disrupt the existing order of things. Digital cameras disrupted film, cheap electronic calculators disrupted the wooden slide rule, the jet engine disrupted piston engines, or at least the high-power versions used in airliners. Vern Raburn thought the Eclipse would disrupt the light jet market, but all it really disrupted was the fortunes of those who invested in it.

So against this backdrop, I’m more than a little wary of a flurry of press releases we got last week about a gadget called the Martin Jetpack. The company is about to go public with an IPO, hence the news releases. You may recall we’ve reported on this as a revisitation of the Hiller 1031-A-1 Flying Platform developed for the U.S. Army in 1957. The concept was actually originated with the Navy, but became the VZ-1 Pawnee for the Army.

The Jetpack really has nothing to do with jets or rockets, but features a pair of ducted fans that allow the single operator to impressively loft vertically and to fly laterally at up to 30 knots for 30 minutes. It’s powered by a 200-hp two-stroke V4 motor of the company’s own design.

While I’d love to fly this thing-well, maybe-I’m not feeling the buzz that it’s disruptive, as the company claims on its website. As it seeks investor dollars, Martin has partnered with Avwatch, a company that specializes in integrating technology into the first responder market-fire and rescue, medical, homeland security, that sort of thing. So presumably, the Jetpack would be disruptive of the helicopters now used for such operations.

I’m unconvinced. Although helicopters are painfully expensive to buy and operate, they do some things quite well. They can land vertically in small spaces, carry first responders in and patients out, not to mention hauling equipment and supplies. Hard to see how the Jetpack, with a full-fuel payload of 220 pounds (with pilot aboard) will displace helos in sufficient numbers to be disruptive and tank Bell’s business. (A new Bell 206, by the way, retails for about $2.3 million while the Jetpack is tentatively priced at $200,000.)

With that price Delta, it’s easy to see some applications for the Jetpack, including some recreational potential for people with pots of money who like to buy exotic toys. But I doubt these things are going to darken the skies. The Jetpack has some limitations. Its wind limitation is 15 knots with gust limits of plus or minus 5 knots and the website gives the engine TBO as only 100 hours. They’ll need to improve that, I suspect. Anticipating what definitely is a disruptive technology-unmanned systems-Martin envisions a pilot-optional version of the Jetpack. But does the world need a very loud, heavy lift UAS with a 30-minute duration? I dunno-maybe for installing air conditioners atop apartment roofs.

The Jetpack looks to have improved upon at least one of the Hiller Platform’s shortcomings. The ducted fan technology of the day couldn’t be steered very well, so the 10310-A-1 operator had to shift body weight to control the thing. That’s reminiscent of another technology that promised to be disruptive but wasn’t: the Segway. It too is controlled kinesthetically. But the Jetpack has steerable vanes on the ducts, so it should be far more controllable and rather than learning its flight characteristics in situ, Martin says there will be a simulator. And for slow learners or engine failures, a ballistic parachute.

The army declined to pursue the Flying Platform, probably for a number of reasons related to it being simply impractical and unworkable. And by the late 1950s, helicopters were coming into their own as practical aircraft for the military. It will take a big dog indeed to dislodge that primacy. My educated guess is that the Martin Jetpack won’t be it. But that’s not the same as Martin finding no buyers for this idea. Stranger things have happened.

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