Saturday, October 10, 2009

COLUMN: I'm leaving on a jetpack

My new favorite band is a group out of Scotland called We Were Promised Jetpacks. Not because of their music, which I haven’t heard yet, but because of their well-placed sense of righteous indignation. We were promised jetpacks, gosh darn it — what the heck are we all still doing down here? It’s frustrating.

So it was with some satisfaction that I read about Mr. Glenn Martin, an inventor who recently introduced a real, working jetpack at the AirVenture airshow in Oshkosh (Motto: “Please Don’t Say Begosh”), Wis. Developed by Martin in his native New Zealand, this jetpack is apparently capable of reaching heights of up to 8,000 feet, which should be plenty high enough to elude the invading Orc armies.

Martin is looking for test pilots for his device, presumably highly trained flight professionals with nerves of steel. So naturally, he offered the positions to the highest bidders on eBay. (That is not a typo.) You may scoff, but if NASA had recruited astronauts that way we’d probably have colonized space by now, although our space stations would be populated entirely by billionaires and members of ’N SYNC.

Besides, Martin is using some discretion: All applicants must have a “current driver’s license,” so there’s really no danger of getting someone who’s not qualified, as long as you don’t mind when grandpa accidentally reverses his thrusters and flies into a water tower. As the eBay listing says, “This is … your own ‘Wright brothers’ moment,” assuming the Wright brothers had exploded in a tremendous fireball 8,000 feet above Wisconsin.

Regardless, it sounds hopeful, but I have my doubts. I’m concerned that instead of buzzing around in jetpacks, we’re much more likely to wind up saddled with the latest invention by Honda: an electric unicycle. This was apparently developed for that coveted market share of drivers who felt the Segway scooter was just a little too cool for them. You know who you are.

According to the BBC, the unicycle uses technology from Honda’s Asimo robot to stand upright, meaning riders don’t have to balance it themselves. This gives them a big advantage over, say, street performers, whose unicycles must be powered strictly through their own dorkery. Unfortunately they only run for an hour — this means you can anticipate a landscape dotted by electric unicycle docking stations, where the electric unicyclists can hang out with each other drinking fake Romulan Ale and talking about why Hurley is the best character on “Lost.”

And if the unicycles don’t work out, it seems Nissan has yet another option for our future transportation needs: robot cars that drive independently and never crash into anything. They do this by constantly sharing their position with all the other cars, primarily through honking, swearing and obscene gestures. Wait, sorry, that’s how we do it now.

According to CNET, the robots are modeled after schools of fish and follow the “three rules of fish movement”: avoiding crashes, traveling side by side and keeping close to each other. The one drawback is, whenever you get to the top of a hill, your car will spawn.

Personally, I’m hoping transportation engineers will be able to combine the best elements of all these ideas and give us the truly futuristic travel devices we (meaning I) have dreamed of for years, namely auto-piloted self-balancing jetpacks that travel like fish. Then, and only then, can We Were Promised Jetpacks even think about changing their name.

I would suggest We Were Promised Lasers. Now that’s something I’d download.

Peter Chianca is a managing editor for GateHouse Media New England; this column appeared originally in North Shore Sunday. Follow him on Twitter at To receive At Large by e-mail, write to, with the subject line “SUBSCRIBE.”

No comments: