June 16, 2016 11:40 pm JST

Martin jetpack lifts off 35 years after conception

DAVID BROOKS, Contributing writer

A Martin Jetpack prototype during a demonstration flight in Shenzhen, China, in December 2015 © Martin Aircraft Co.

WELLINGTON -- Like many five-year-old boys, Glenn Martin dreamed of flying with his own jetpack. But for the New Zealander, the dream became a passion and he devoted 34 years of his life turning it into reality.

Production of the Martin Jetpack is underway at Martin Aircraft in Christchurch, New Zealand, this year but the inventor is unlikely to be present at the celebrations when the first one comes off the assembly line. Martin left the company last year after disagreeing with management over strategy.

"I still love the Martin Jetpack. I hope they're successful and I would love to see jetpacks flying all over the world," said Martin, who still owns nearly 10% of the company's shares.

Peter Coker, chief executive of the Australian Stock Exchange-listed Martin Aircraft and a former British airforce pilot, said the company was in the process of importing parts and setting up production. The goal is to achieve a production capacity of 33 units in the Christchurch plant this year, then up to 250 next year and 500 within three years.

Regulatory approvals are still pending and the final prototype will be the first to be produced, followed by the first commercial model before the end of the year. Both manned and unmanned versions of the jetpack will be made.

The company has a memorandum of understanding -- with final contracts still to be signed -- to supply 20 jetpacks to Dubai Civil Defence, the city's safety and security body. Another MOU for three each of the manned and unmanned machines has been signed with Avwatch, a U.S. company which provides air surveillance and communications support for the military, homeland security and disaster relief. A letter of intent, preceding an MOU, has also been signed for the supply of 100 jetpacks in China.

As the company moves from research and development into the production phase, staff numbers have grown from six when Coker first joined in 2013 to just under 100 now, plus over a dozen contractors.

Fly, fly away

Strictly speaking, the Martin Jetpack isn't a jetpack at all. Propulsion is provided by two ducted fans. The advantages of this design compared with the jetpacks developed previously are that they can carry more weight and fly for longer.

Martin's ducted fan design can carry up to 120 kg and can stay in the air for up to 30 minutes, compared to about 10 minutes or less for turbine jetpacks. Martin's machine has a maximum speed of 74kph and can fly to a height of 1,000 meters.

"From early on I wanted something that could carry 100 kg, because that's how much I weigh, and could fly for half an hour, because that was the minimum time I want to fly around and have fun," Martin said.

"From the age of five, I wanted a jetpack. I remember sitting in school and listening to Neil Armstrong stepping on to the moon. I thought we would be having holidays to the moon by now and bases on Mars."

His desire to create a flying machine was reignited at university in 1981. He spent 3.5 years on the math and worked in pharmaceutical sales for four years to learn business skills and help fund his project. He started building prototypes on a full-time basis in the late 1980s.

By 1998, a prototype was airborne for the first time and some friends came in as early investors. At one stage, he had taken out three mortgages on his family home to fund the project.

His wife was the first test pilot, strapping on a prototype just six weeks after the younger of their two sons was born.

"She's as mad as I am, she used to race cars in her younger days," said Martin, who has flown his prototypes 672 times.

The first time he rose into the air, he was so frightened he immediately backed off the throttle and landed again. At the time, he was testing the jetpack alone at a secluded spot outside Christchurch, with only a first-aid kit for support.

"After the third or fourth time, you get right into it and it's an amazing feeling," he said. "The jetpack is all behind you so you can't really see it. You only see your hands in front of you on the controls lifting you up.

"Once you get used to the controls, it's very natural. You want to go somewhere and you point the stick in that direction and away you go."

Different dreams

Martin knew from 2008 when he brought in venture capital to finance further development that he would probably eventually lose control of the company. Last year, he left because of a clash between his vision of selling personal jetpacks and the company's decision to focus first on the emergency services, commercial and military sectors.

But Coker said the company had not discarded Martin's vision and it aims one day to be able to sell a personal jetpack for around $250,000.

"We haven't changed direction, we still have the ambition around the personal jetpack and we want to deliver that as part of our capabilities in the future."

But he added it was better to introduce a new aircraft to a controlled environment, such as the emergency services, where users fully understand the capabilities and safety issues. He said that the market was large and investors in the company would want their investments to be protected and to grow.

The company is now 52% owned by Kuang-Chi Science, a Hong Kong-listed company which is developing a number of new technologies, including a high altitude balloon to deliver communications to remote areas.

Kuang-Chi Science provided 21 million Australian dollars ($15.5 million) out of the A$27 million raised in an initial public offering last year and took a majority stake through the issue of A$23 million convertible notes in February this year.

Since listing on the Australian Stock Exchange in February last year, Martin Aircraft's share price has fluctuated wildly. In the last year, it ranged between a high of A$1.10 and a low of A$0.38. The shares closed at A$0.56 each on June 16.

A joint venture between Martin Aircraft and Kuang-Chi Science is planned, with the intention of building a factory in China from early next year to make up to 1,000 jetpacks annually for the Chinese market. Assembly plants may also be built in other parts of the world as demand grows, Coker said.

Although there is some way to go before commercial production gets underway and regulatory approval is received, Coker is bullish about the jetpack's prospects.

"It's going to change the whole dynamics of light aviation. It's a disruptive technology and it's a lot of fun to be part of," he said.

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