- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 21, 2021

In the 1965 movie “Thunderball,” Agent 007 James Bond uses a “Bell Rocket Belt” to escape from pursuing gunmen, soaring over the rooftops to his waiting Aston Martin DB5. Although originally developed for the military by Bell Aerosystems, the Army wasn’t impressed with its 21-second flight time and the Rocket Belt was shelved. 

Five decades and multiple dashed dreams later, the U.S. military is taking another look at flying jetpacks for the troops, although the Bell Rocket Belt has morphed into the far less catchy “Portable Personal Air Mobility System.”

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is taking another crack at personal flying devices, inviting companies to send their proposals for developing and demonstrating “novel or unique approaches to personal battlefield mobility.”

DARPA officials said entries could be a modification of existing prototypes — such as the Bell Rocket Belt — or could embrace entirely new designs.

“Technologies of interest,” the request for proposals said,  include “jetpacks, powered gliders, powered wingsuits and powered parafoils which could leverage emerging electric propulsion technologies, hydrogen fuel cells or conventional heavy-fuel propulsion systems.”

DARPA officials said the platforms would be used on a variety of missions, including urban combat, search-and-rescue, and deploying special forces troops into a battlefield. The jetpack wearers should not need a pilot’s license or years of training to get airborne.

“When deployed, the platform will be designed with simplified operations in mind so that someone unfamiliar with the platform could be educated in its safe and effective use with relatively little training,” DARPA officials said in their announcement.

The military does have a few conditions. They prefer a platform with a low profile, quiet in operation and not giving off a telltale infrared signature. A soldier must be able to assemble it within 10 minutes using only simple tools — or better yet, no tools at all. The device should be able to launch and land without any outside assistance, such as wind or elevation. 

Despite their ubiquity in science fiction and popular culture, personal jetpacks pose a major design challenge to engineers, especially if the goal is one that’s practical, affordable and does not shoot out exhaust flames inches from the user’s backside. Unlike, say, a kite, the human body is not aerodynamically designed and represents dead weight for which the jetpack’s energy source must compensate.

“Until we find an affordable but very potent fuel source that can store enough energy for a long-distance flight in something the size of a rucksack, jetpacks aren’t viable,” science writer Dean Burnett wrote in the Guardian newspaper in 2014. “Perhaps we’ll be able to miniaturize nuclear reactors, but as people often panic about living within 10 miles of a nuclear plant, they’ll probably balk at wearing one.”

Still, a handful of start-up companies are already exploring the idea of the jetpack and are expected to throw their hat into the DARPA ring.

A British company, Gravity Industries, showed the Royal Navy in 2019 military applications for their “jet suit.” Inventor and test pilot Richard Browning, a former Royal Marine, took off from a launch pad aboard the fast patrol boat HMS Dasher and flew to military speed boats buzzing along the coast of Portsmouth Harbor.

“Richard made taking off and landing …  look so easy, despite the ship travelling at 20 knots,” said Royal Navy Lieutenant Lauren Webber, commander of the Dasher, in a statement released to the press at the time.

According to Fortune magazine, Gravity Industries is interested in the DARPA competition but has to check to determine whether it is qualified to compete for the contract as a non-U.S. based company.

California-based JetPack Aviation is another possible contender for the DARPA competition. In addition to its own jetpack device, the company is developing a “flying motorcycle” that somewhat resembles the Speeder bikes that are commonplace in the Star Wars movies.

The company says its “Military Speeder” will be able to fly for up to 30 minutes at a maximum speed of 150 mph. 

Proposals for the DARPA competition will be accepted until April 20.

• Mike Glenn can be reached at mglenn@washingtontimes.com.

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