The Pentagon finally wants to make jetpack soldiers a reality

This is the way.
David Roza Avatar
(Disney photo)

Forget hypersonic missiles and AI drones, the Pentagon is finally looking into the real future tech we’ve always wanted: jetpacks!

In a bid for research proposals released earlier this month, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) requested ideas for a “portable personal air mobility system” that could be used for special operations, search and rescue, urban combat, maritime interdiction, and even logistics missions.

Jetpacks are definitely what this reporter wants to see, but DARPA said proposals could also include powered gliders, powered wingsuit, and powered parafoils; just as long as they can be carried easily by one or a few people; have a range of at least 3.1 miles; can take off anywhere; and can be assembled in less than 10 minutes with minimal tools.

“Systems may be air deployed to allow for [infiltration] to hostile territory, or ground deployed to allow for greater off-road mobility,” DARPA wrote in its pre-solicitation, which was posted on the U.S. government’s business contracting website on March 2. 

The system could be powered by electric batteries, hydrogen fuel cells or conventional heavy fuel propulsion systems, DARPA wrote, as long as the system doesn’t need environmental factors like wind or elevation to get going. It would also be an extra treat if the system were quiet with a low infrared signature but still simple enough that a user could learn how to operate it with “relatively little training,” DARPA said.

The pre-solicitation is by no means a guarantee that future operators will soon rocket into battle like the Mandalorian. It is meant to just help DARPA start considering the feasibility of such a system, and to potentially demonstrate it. But it comes five months after the British Royal Navy announced it would test jet packs for swarming and boarding ships, and U.S. Special Operations Command said it would evaluate a jetpack that could fly at more than 200 miles per hour.

(Bell Art via War is Boring)

Yet the history of the U.S. military’s flirtations with jetpacks goes even further back. Bell Aerosystems whipped up several different flying contraptions for the Army in the late 1950s, as War Is Boring reported in 2015. Among them was a Jet Belt controlled with joysticks that could fly at more than 100 miles per hour, and a two-man rocket-powered “Pogo.”

“It’s all very sci-fi,” wrote Joseph Trevithick at the time. “Troops with Jet Belts could launch hit and run raids or rush to break up an ambush. Soldiers and Marines might zoom to dry land from ships offshore without having to plod along in landing craft or amphibious vehicles.”

Jet Belt troops could also serve as spotters for fire support; hover in the rear as military police; pick up injured troops or downed pilots; or haul around heavy weapons or supplies, Trevithick wrote. Bell’s promotional materials included some pretty cheesy doodles of Jet Belt-wearing soldiers hopping over Vietnam-esque jungles and rivers.

But the program never got off the ground: Trevithick said Jet Belts and Pogos could not compete with the range of helicopters, and the idea was eventually shelved. However, a new wave of jetpack entrepreneurs such as Richard Browning, the former Royal Marine who founded Gravity Industries and flew a lap around the HMS Queen Elizabeth in a jet suit in 2019, could pave the way for renewed development of the technology.

A pilot for Gravity Industries tests out a jetpack in 2019. (Gravity Industries photo / Wikimedia Commons)

Could DARPA’s pre-solicitation mark a new hope for our jetpack dreams? We’ll have to stay tuned, but even if DoD turns them down, the systems being considered could still be a huge opportunity for civilian first responders, including police, search and rescue, and ambulance response, DARPA wrote. Or they could be the Segways of the sky for tourists trying to see the sites in cities everywhere. Either way, bring on the fuuuuture.

Related: The inside story behind the Pentagon’s ill-fated quest for a real-life ‘Iron Man’ suit