Flying Motorcycles and Jetpacks: Fantasies Do Come True
It’s been nearly a decade since venture capital firm Founders Fund published its manifesto complaining about the slowing rate of innovation, encapsulated by the tagline: “We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters.” (The line has been attributed to the firm’s founder and co-founder of PayPal, Peter Thiel, though the essay itself was penned by former Founders Fund-er and writer Bruce Gibney.) Since then, Twitter has doubled the number of characters in a tweet and we’re still waiting on a commercially available flying car. We may have to settle for flying motorcycles and jetpacks instead – if one Los Angeles startup can succeed.
A Startup for Flying Motorcycles and Jetpacks
Officially founded in 2016, JetPack Aviation has raised an estimated $2.75 million in funding. Most of the money came from a $2 million Seed round last year led by Draper Associates, a VC fund under the thumb of Tim Draper. Draper is a venture capitalist with a pretty good track record, with investments including Chinese tech giant Baidu, Elon Musk companies Tesla (TSLA) and SpaceX, millennial-focused success stories like Twitch and Robinhood, and even Twitter. His son, Adam Draper, is a fourth-generation venture capitalist whose Boost VC put down $350,000 on JetPack Aviation more than a year ago. The firm likes to bet on what it calls sci-fi startups, with a portfolio that includes solar-powered airships, animal-free dairy cheese, and engineered viruses. The world’s most famous startup accelerator, Y Combinator, is also an investor.
David Mayman and Nelson Tyler are the brains behind JetPack Aviation. Mayman is the CEO and founder, as well as a test pilot who has flown the company’s jetpack around landmarks like the Statue of Liberty. Tyler is JetPack Aviation’s chief designer whose own company – Tyler Camera Systems, founded back in 1964 – develops stabilized camera systems for helicopters and other bumpy rides. That innovation actually won him an Academy Award in technical achievement for adapting the technology for shots taken from a boat.
A Real-Life Jetpack
Before we dive into the company’s latest project to develop a flying motorcycle, let’s first geek out on its real-life jetpack. Mayman and Tyler started collaborating on such a machine way back in 2006-07 – about 45 years after Bell Aerosystems demonstrated the first working jetpack for the military. That contraption, however, could only stay aloft for about 21 seconds on five gallons of hydrogen peroxide. The Army brass figured the so-called Bell Rocket Belt was more of a toy than a true military asset. But the idea of a personal flying machine fired the imagination of more than one tinkerer, including Tyler, who had worked on various propulsion systems in the 1970s and 1980s including pulse jets, pressure jets, and gasoline engine-powered ducted fans.
In 1984, test pilot Bill Suitor (who had been Sean Connery’s stunt double when James Bond flew a Bell Rocket Belt in the movie Thunderball) made a spectacular entrance during the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games in Los Angeles. He was wearing a rocket belt built by – you guessed it – Nelson Tyler. Tyler had built a copy of the Bell Rocket Belt in 1969 that he called the NT-1, according to a brief history on Suitor’s personal webpage.
Thirty years later, in 2015, JetPack Aviation unveiled the first workable iteration of its personal vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) machine, the JB9 JetPack. The company went on to develop two more jetpack models, JB10 and JB11:
As you can see, the main differences between the two are size and the number of jet engines, which can run on kerosene, JetA, or diesel. The former can generate nearly 400 pounds of thrust and remain airborne for eight minutes, while the latter can reach a maximum thrust of about 540 pounds and stay aloft for about 10 minutes. Both jetpacks have a maximum speed of 120 miles per hour, with a ceiling of 15,000 feet. Back in 2018, The Guardian reported that JetPack Aviation hoped to release an electric version last year that would cost about $250,000 – about the price of a ticket on a Virgin Galactic flight to the edge of space. We’ll probably have to wait for the Groupon deal.
A Flying Motorcycle for the (Millionaire) Masses
Perhaps one reason for the no-show of an electric jetpack is the company’s latest dream machine – a flying motorcycle.
Looking like something straight out of a CGI scene in Star Wars, the Speeder appears as cool as it sounds. The company is planning both recreational and military models that can navigate
the forests of Endor at speeds of up to 150 miles per hour but with the capability of a true VTOL in that it can take off from anywhere the size of a small car space.
The recreational model will set you back about $380,000 and will be lighter than most 125cc motorcycles, with a maximum flight time of 22 minutes. The ultralight version will not require a pilot’s license to operate, according to JetPack Aviation, which will provide training at its facility or at one of its authorized training centers. However, it will be limited to carrying five gallons of fuel and 60 mph. The experimental version of the recreational model comes with all of the bells and whistles but will require a pilot license to operate. JetPack Aviation claims it is the only FAA-authorized jet-VTOL instruction facility in the world.
As you might expect, the military version boasts higher specs, including a flight time of up to 30 minutes and a maximum thrust of 1,200 pounds versus 700 pounds for the rec version. The military model will also feature a fully autonomous mode and can double as a cargo carrier with a 10-minute modification.
Similar to the company’s jetpack series, the Speeder uses a tilt-to-accelerate flight system with hand controls, a two-way aviation radio for communication, and 12-inch touchscreen for navigation, Digital Trends reported. The article also noted that the Speeder uses a fly-by-wire control system that self-stabilizes the vehicle in the air much like a drone.
Competition for the World’s First Flying Motorcycle?
JetPack Aviation would seem to have the inside track on developing the world’s first flying motorcycle, though we recently came across a Japanese startup called A.L.I. Technologies that unveiled a hoverbike at last year’s Tokyo Motor Show. Also founded in 2016, the company has reportedly raised about $21.5 million in disclosed funding over three rounds since 2018. Details around the Xturismo Speeder (trademark infringement, anyone?) are somewhat lost in translation, but the hybrid-electric VTOL hoverbike sounds and looks a bit more like a traditional drone-like flying car:
Two large propellers under the fuselage work in tandem to provide lift, with four smaller side-mounted fans on each main lift duct for navigation. The company claims to be developing a whole line of other unmanned aerial vehicles, along with the mapping and navigation technology, including using blockchain and artificial intelligence to ensure the aircraft can operate in the urban air mobility environment of the future. ALI Technologies plans to offer only 100 of its hybrid flying motorcycles at a price point somewhere between $300,000.00 and $500,000.00. The idea is to switch to a fully electric model that will be available at a relatively bargain price of between $80,000 and $120,000.
The Raising of Lazarus
No story about flying motorcycles would be complete without mentioning the eccentric Frenchman, Ludovic Lazareth, who brought us the Lazareth La Moto Volante or Lazareth LMV 496 as it’s also called. An article by TopSpeed details the ridiculous specs behind the flying vehicle which could hardly pass as a motorcycle with its four jet turbines that generate around 1,300 horsepower. Then there’s the fact that motorcycles have two wheels, and this monstrosity has four.
Only five copies of the flying
bike four-wheeler will ever be made and each will sell for $560,000.
There’s no timeline for when JetPack Aviation’s Speeder will be ready for market. Last we heard, the company was flight testing a one-third scale prototype. Obviously that kind of hardware will require a ton more cash if the startup is to bring its dream to life. Will the Draper dynasty be willing to part with that kind of cash? The elder Draper certainly saw his investment in self-driving startup Cruise Automation pay off in 2016 when General Motors (GM) acquired the company for $1 billion. It all seems like a bit of a longshot. Then again, so were working jetpacks. It could be a fun ride.
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