Hovering into battle


Although people have been flying for more than a century, personal flight remains elusive.

Take for example Bell Aerosystems’ Rocket Belt, which was designed in the early 1960s and even made a brief but spectacular appearance in James Bond’s Thunderball (1965). Everyone was thrilled by the project, which gathered very positive feedback during demonstrations… until it got eventually ditched by the US Army, who felt discouraged by two major shortcomings: the Rocket Belt could only fly for 20 seconds and could not go beyond 120m in a single flight…

Half a century later, however, a new generation of engineers has decided to pick up the torch, and although personal flight designs were initially intended for civilian use, some are starting to think about the military potential of such gadgets on tomorrow’s battlefield, which are slated to be more urban-based than ever before.

One of these project can be found in the United Kingdom, where Richard Browning, a former Royal Marine reservist, founded Gravity Industries in March 2017. The firm’s lead project, called JetSuit, has already managed to gather a lot of attention since its first public appearance at TED (Tech-based conferences) in April 2017. It enables someont to take off vertically and reach a speed of 50mph thanks to six miniature turbines fixed on the arms and legs of the pilot. As Browning said, the idea here is to add ‘’the minimal amount of horsepower to the human body’’ in order to combine speed with agility.

Anyone would be happy to try the device for fun, but the JetSuit could also find its use in a different field: modern combat for special forces. Being himself a special forces reservist, Browning has been thinking for a long-time about using the JetSuit in amphibious assaults, the idea being to take off from a ship and rush towards a shore-based objective in a “nimble and hard to counter way”. As revealed by Jane’s International Defence Review a few weeks ago, the device has already been demonstrated to the British Ministry of Defence, the US Navy Seals, as well as an undisclosed naval unit located in South-East Asia.

Eventually, Browning believes that the JetSuit could also find a more conventional use in dense urban-combat situations as it would enable troops to quickly get on top of valuable buildings and secure key vantage points. With a maximum altitude of 12,000ft, larger obstacles could even be considered in the mid to long-term future. The main limitation so far lies in the JetSuit’s relatively low flight endurance (10 minutes at most), but there are plans to extend that duration as Browning said the company is currently working on a new variant.

Another well-advanced project lies in JetPack Aviation’s JB-Series. The latest product made public so far (JB-11) puts a lot of emphasis on deployability as it only weighs 115lbs, for a max thrust of 530 lbs. It also benefits from 10mn of autonomy and a top-speed of 120mph. The project’s goal, according to JPA’s CEO David Mayman, is to create the ‘’smallest and fastest VTOL personal aircraft’’ on the market, and military variants are also underway. A contract with the US Navy to equip the Navy Seals has already been secured and as Mayman said, the main possibility here would be to quickly transfer soldiers or support units from ship-to-shore, or from one ship to another. The company is also looking to improve the device as it is currently working on the JB-12 which will have an extended range (30km), better autonomy (15mn) and more thrust than its predecessor.

JetPack Aviation is also under contract with the US Marine Corps (USMC) for the development of another futuristic engine, called the Speeder (military variant). Looking like the aerial version of a motorbike, the device is slated to be much faster than the JBs (150 km/h) with plans to upgrade it to 250km/h according to Mr. Mayman and also pack a much bigger punch in terms of thrust (1200lbs). The Speeder would also be much more intuitive in its handling, as JetPack Aviation claims that even a beginner could quickly get a feel of the device. Ultimately, the idea would be to use it in swarms as a replacement to small helicopters as they would be much faster and harder to target, especially for non-guided RPGs used in counter-insurgency theatres.

Since it has two seats, it could also carry specialized personnel at the back, such as a medic or an engineer for emergency situations. The Speeder could also be easily deployable as its weight (250kg) enables it to be carried around in a Humvee.

In the Gulf, California-based technology company Hoversurf developed the Scorpion 3 hoverbike, powered by four propellers, and which was delivered last year to the Dubai Police. Meanwhile, France has a project of its own through Flyboard Air technology, which is developed by local start-up Zapata. The company was launched by Franky Zapata, a former jetski racer whose ambition has been since 2012 to develop the Flyboard project.

The founder’s appetite for extreme sensations clearly stands out as the Flyboard Air resembles pretty much a flying skateboard: its pilot has to stand on a turbine-powered platform and manage its balance in order to dictate its desired trajectory. A prototype was demonstrated last November to the French Minister of Defense and a selected public audience at an innovation forum in Paris.

According to Jane’s, the French procurement agency (DGA) has awarded a grant to the project, for a final development stage planned in 2020. For now, the Flyboard Air has a top-speed of 140km/h, a flight endurance of 6mn and a maximum lifting capacity of 100kg, although these characteristic are being improved. That’s many developments, but whether a genuine, sizable market can sustain them remains to be seen.

Written by ADIT – The Bulletin and republished with permission.