If you’ve ever thought it would be amazing to be able to rocket through the sky like Iron Man, have a look at the new video featuring “Jetman” Yves Rossy. Through many different variations and test models over the past twenty years, Rossy has developed his own combination jet pack and flying wing that allows him to do incredible things in the air. I’m very jealous, even though if I were to try out his jet pack my flight suit would need a heavy duty Depends. Just for fun, you should also check out his “race” with a rally car for the BBC show Top Gear.
For now, Rossy’s system does have some drawbacks: it weighs about 120 pounds, has to be launched in the air (he drops from a plane or helicopter like a skydiver) and requires a parachute to land. Nonetheless, it’s impressive as hell, and we know that when innovative ideas capture mainstream attention they can quickly undergo dramatic improvements. Maybe within another ten years the current limitations will be overcome and the world will see a personal flying suit capable of take-off and landing. Then what will Tony Stark do to keep ahead?
Individual human flight has been a dream for thousands of years and a regular feature of science fiction. Most often, writers have dodged many of the technical hurdles by placing the characters in low-gravity or zero gravity environments, like small moon-planets or orbital habitats, with mechanically-assisted muscle to flap wings or small steam-powered rockets to provide forward momentum. Such systems are rarely used for practical purposes like an everyday commute. They’re for recreation or competitive sport. But it’s interesting to speculate what it would be like if the personal jet pack came into common use.
It could solve a lot of parking problems.
Hard to say if it would help with traffic congestion, though. Instead of left and right traffic lanes, I expect we’d have an upper and lower stream of flyers. Cross streets could eliminate the need for traffic lights by also using three dimensions: requiring each street (or flight path) to be restricted to a specific altitude, possibly marked by wide horizontal stripes painted on each of the buildings flanking it. Less terrifying would be a requirement for flyers to travel well above the highest buildings in a minimal number of lanes that could be marked by towers mounted on buildings or balloons tethered to them (high wind days, rainstorms, and blizzards might ground everyone, but storms already screw up our commutes).
Needless to say, commuters wouldn’t be travelling at the 200 km/h that Yves Rossy does. There isn’t an insurance company in the world that wouldn’t collapse into a quivering puddle of jelly at that prospect. Air pollution might be worse than it already is. Taxi drivers would become all but extinct (catering only to those afraid to fly, or otherwise not airworthy). Police chases would be nothing less than aerial choreography. Office workers with slippery briefcase handles could be inadvertent killers. Pigeons and gulls would become Public Enemy #1.
In truth, I don’t expect any of this to happen via jet pack technology. Too many drawbacks. We won’t become a species of individual flyers until someone discovers the secret of antigravity, and whether that will happen in our lifetimes, or ever, is anybody’s guess.
If it does, I’ll buy you a coffee in the fly-thru lane.