Jetpacks are so last year. The real vehicles of the future are robotic jetpacks. And the future has arrived.
The Martin Aircraft Company, makers of the world's only commercial jetpack, has built an unmanned version of the device that can be launched from the back of a pickup truck, ferry supplies to troops, monitor a battlefield, and even scan a war zone for improvised explosive devices.
It sounds and looks like a far-future idea ripped from a 1950s comic book -- but it's very much a reality, company CEO Richard Lauder told FoxNews.com.
"With the potential to reach heights of up to 10,000 feet or more, and lift loads of up to 100 kilograms (220 pounds) -- while taking off and landing vertically -- the potential applications for the unmanned version are large and varied," Lauder said in an interview with FoxNews.com.
It's called the Martin Skyhook UAV, and it could be a missing piece in the military's unmanned arsenal, resupplying troops on the front lines -- or maybe dropping bombs on the the enemy. The Skyhook, remote-control operated from the ground, boasts the same specifications as the manned version of Martin's jetpack: Lift is generated by two turbofans driven by a 2-liter, 200-horsepower engine that can theoretically take the craft as high as 8,000 feet. It boasts a range of 31 miles and a maximum speed of 63 miles per hour, and it runs on ordinary gasoline, not jet or rocket fuel.
"We have a vertical takeoff and landing aircraft, so you don't need a runway, and you can take off from the back of a Hummer if you wanted to," Lauder told FoxNews.com.
But supply is just one area in which Martin Aircraft hopes its robot jetpack may prove useful. "In certain areas of the world, say Afghanistan, where the U.S. wants a mobile telephone network and they don't have one, they could effectively fly one in," Lauder said. "Another very interesting application that has been discussed is flying a jetpack ahead of a convoy with ground-penetrating radar to detect IEDs -- bombs in the road."
And these ideas aren't pie-in-the-sky; Martin says it is in discussions with four different parties in Europe and the U.S. on the Skyhook UAV. Spokesmen for the Army and Navy declined to comment on programs that they do not directly support, but Richard Mason, an engineer with the Rand Corp. and an expert in military technology, said it sounds like something that would appeal to the military.
"DARPA has a program called Transformer," said Mason, who developed three robotic ground vehicles for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. "They want something that can both drive around as a car and fly -- which sounds goofy, but forget that part. What they're trying to get at is something that's as easy to drive as a car yet can fly. So an automated thing that would fly things around? The military is definitely interested in that."
And oddly, the product was inevitable.
"It's something we had to develop anyway as part of our testing program," Lauder explained. With its tiny budget and only a few test vehicles, Martin didn't want to risk an engineer's life just to push the test envelope.
"If we say, look, we want to go 40 kilometers per hour now, then somebody has to agree to do that," he said.
Thus the Martin Skyhook was born, using the same on-board remote control electronics as the popular Predator drone, controls developed by military supply company Rockwell Collins.
The Skyhook's range seems limiting at first; most current unmanned vehicles, such as the Predator or the unmanned Blackhawk helicopter currently under development, are intended for long-range surveillance or as weapons. Few short range items sit in the middle, Lauder said, which means the Skyhook could open up new options.
"With a UAV you could be up there for an hour," drop off water or other supplies to the front lines, and return to resupply.
But Mason says the Skyhook is not that distinctive from a lot of UAVs on the market. And there are quite a few.
"There's a constellation of UAVs out there, something like 600," he told FoxNews.com. "Although it may be a little bit different, I don't know that the space is totally unexplored."
While interest has been very high, the company's research and development program, as with any fledgling company, has been constrained by the lack of funds. “We are seeking a cornerstone investor to help fund the final development phase and to enable the company to get the first aircraft to market.
“With a little more funding on board, we believe we could start field trials for specific commercial applications for the Martin Skyhook UAV as quickly as the end of 2011.”
"We think we could have it in field trials in nine months," he said.
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Jeremy A. Kaplan is Science and Technology editor at FoxNews.com, where he heads up coverage of gadgets, the online world, space travel, nature, the environment, and more. Prior to joining Fox, he was executive editor of PC Magazine, co-host of the Fastest Geek competition, and a founding editor of GoodCleanTech.