Could jetpacks and other lift devices be making their way on to the battlefield? (Picture: PA).
By David Hambling, technology expert
When Sean Connery’s 007 escaped from villains with the aid of a jetpack in Thunderball in 1965, it looked like the ultimate in mobility.
The jetpack was a genuine device, developed by the US military, which looked like it could go anywhere.
Instead, it went nowhere for 50 years. Now personal lift devices are making a comeback. Are we about to see the age of the flying soldier?
It all started in 1958, with the US Army requesting industry to come up with a backpack-mounted device incorporating small rockets.
The aim was to give 14 seconds of lift and carry the wearer over obstacles.
The resulting device was considered too limited to be deployed, but it later evolved into the Bell Aerospace Rocket Belt, the jetpack used by Bond.
It looked great, but the issue was fuel: 20 litres of hydrogen peroxide gave just 30 seconds of powered flight.
That’s enough for a cool demonstration, but not enough to get anywhere. Which is why jet packs disappeared into obscurity... Until now.
Watch: A lightweight jet suit that is available to the public has been created by British firm Gravity Industries.
Now the military is exploring three different types of personal lift device, each of which has the potential to succeed where the Rocket Belt failed.
The Malloy Hoverbike is the creation New Zealand inventor Chris Malloy and is sometimes described as a flying motorbike with a top speed of 60 mph.
The makers call it "a quadcopter the size of a small car" and it is being tested as part of the US Army Joint Tactical Aerial Resupply Vehicle program.
Initially, the aim is to carry supplies to the frontline, but, as the makers say: "the Hoverbike does not care if the payload is human or supplies - it will carry any practical weight up to 130kg safely and reliably."
It can carry a human, more as a passenger than a pilot, as easily as anything else.
One detail which Malloy Aerospace has not yet supplied is the Hoverbike’s endurance, which is likely to be crucial.
The company already build a 1/3 scale version of the hoverbike which has a flight time of 19 minutes, so the full-scale version is likely to be in the same range.
The Flyboard Air is a flying skateboard, like Marty McFly’s hoverboard from 'Back To The Future II'.
It is the development of the Flyboard invented by French jetskier Franky Zapata, which stays in the air with a jet of water and which has become popular with extreme sports fans.
The original is limited because it needs to be attached to a speedboat or jet ski for water supply, but the Flyboard Air can skim along at 140kph over land or water thanks to compact jet turbines.
The US Special Forces command have been testing a military version of the Flyboard Air for their Individual Aerial Mobility System.
This has an endurance of 12 minutes and a range of 11 miles. The developers plan a more powerful version which can carry the operator plus 100 kilos of payload for a flight time of 30 minutes.
Meanwhile, the original jetpack concept has also been revived.
Jet Pack Aviation (JPA) was founded by Australian businessman David Mayman, who is also the company’s chief test pilot.
JPA has signed a development agreement with the US military to develop an individual flight device based on their JB-series.
These resemble the original rocket belt but have jets powered by jet fuel or diesel. Again, endurance is likely to be the biggest challenge. The latest version, the JB11, can reach 200 mph and flies for up to 12 minutes.
The question is whether they would be any practical use on the battlefield.
One application, suggested by over-water testing of the Airboard, is that they represent a new capability for rapidly landing troops from the sea.
A unit equipped with such devices can carry out ‘distributed manoeuvre’ – rather than having to gather inside one large and relatively vulnerable helicopter, troops could advance and manoeuvre individually, taking up dispersed positions as soon as they land.
The entire unit could deploy in one go, without waiting for a helicopter to shuttle them over several trips.
The Flyboard Air is designed to be able to travel over land or water.
Another suggestion is that individual flight devices would give an advantage in difficult terrain such as crowded urban areas.
They allow a unit to deploy rapidly in areas which are not accessible to helicopters, and without needing to use congested or hazardous road approaches.
Landing in narrow streets or on rooftops and balconies, forces could rapidly surround and isolate an objective and gain tactical surprise.
There may be other issues that keep personal lift devices back.
One is the noise: none of them is exactly quiet, and some can be heard from a considerable distance.
In addition, they do not provide the protection levels of other military vehicles, leaving the passenger completely exposed to enemy fire.
Speed and surprise – and taking advantage of available cover – will be the user’s best defence, but this will require a different mindset to current concepts of protected mobility behind steel plate.
Individual lift devices are likely to be adopted by special forces for missions when there are no other means of access.
Success would give them a boost, but they will have a much wider application if the developers can squeeze more endurance out of their flying machines.
When that happens, we will start to see a lot more flying soldiers in the coming years.