Nov 112014
Thunderball used the real life "Bell Rocket Belt," a hydrogen peroxide powered jetpack.

Figure 1. Thunderball used the real life “Bell Rocket Belt,” a hydrogen peroxide powered jetpack

Jetpacks. Not only cool, but also an originally sci-fi concept that actually exists. The word normally invokes visions of adventurous self-propelled flyers, like in the 1965 James Bond feature film Thunderball. “What goes up must come down,” is an applicable cliché. Functional jetpacks average a flight time of about 20 seconds, but what if flight wasn’t the point? If the cliché read, “What goes forward must go forward faster,” how would that affect this wearable device concept?

Enter Jason Kerestes of Arizona State University (ASU) and his 4MM (4 Minute Mile) project. He developed a prototype jetpack that allows the wearer to run faster than normal, potentially covering a mile in four minutes or less.

Kerestes explains his motivation for the 4MM jetpack.

Figure 2. Kerestes explains his motivation for the 4MM jetpack

Watch the 4MM Jetpack video:

Kerestes is a graduate student working with ASU’s iProjects, a collaborative program between students and industry. The 4MM jetpack came about when the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) asked for a device to enhance a soldier’s battlefield performance. Battery operated thrusters attach to a military-rucksack frame and use air bursts to propel the runner forward. The prototype pack weighs 11.2 lbs, but allows the wearer to run faster while expending less energy despite the added weight.

4MM Jetpack prototype

Figure 3. 4MM Jetpack prototype

The battlefield applications of physical augmentation are obvious. But would a standard infantry soldier use the 4MM jetpack? Probably not, it weighs too much. When wearing their combat gear (full battle rattle), 11.2 lbs is a lot to add on top of a load already averaging 70 lbs and up. In ASU’s video, Kerestes speaks in terms of Navy SEALS or Army soldiers (most likely Special Forces) who need to get in and out of target zones quickly.

A U.S. Army soldier wearing "full battle rattle."

Figure 4. A U.S. Army soldier wearing “full battle rattle”

Of course, the 11.2 lbs applies to a prototype. A production model will undoubtedly weigh less.

Off the battlefield, what could be done with a 4MM jetpack? It would surely cause a controversy in the world of athletic competition.

In 2007, Oscar Pistorius was banned from competing against athletes without prosthetics. The International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) felt his limbs gave the “Blade Runner” an unfair advantage. Pistorius was eventually allowed to compete, but how would jetpacks be viewed? Most likely, the IAAF will exhibit less enthusiasm than the carbon-fiber “Flex-Foot Cheetah” legs Pistorius runs with.

Oscar Pistorius 2011

Figure 6. Oscar Pistorius 2011

On the other hand, devices like jetpacks could draw fans by making sports more “extreme” or allowing new games to evolve. How many Harry Potter fans would like to play “Quidditch” in the air?

4MM 200 meter time trial

Figure 5. 4MM 200 meter time trial

Coming down another level, who wouldn’t enjoy feeling fleet of foot from jet propulsion? Commercially, companies could charge people for the experience of feeling like professional athlete.

Is the research investment worth it? Before DARPA asked for a device intended for combat, the 4MM researchers at ASU were working on prosthetics for amputees. Is it nobler to develop a potentially life saving device or a life changing device? DARPA could just as easily asked for better prosthetic limbs. That question may be argued at length and is a personal belief. The fact of the matter is: development will occur where the funding goes.

If the 4MM jetpack is successful, and if it finds life off the battlefield, what will the future of performance enhancing devices bring? With any luck, future wearable devices are even cooler than jetpacks.

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