One evening in 1981, when Glenn Martin was a biochemistry student at New Zealand’s Otago University, he found himself in the pub with friends talking about why so much of the technological promise of their youth had gone unfulfilled. ‘Weren’t we supposed to have jetpacks by now?’ they wondered.
Thousands of people around the world must have had similar conversations at some time or another, but Glenn was the only one to get up the next day, go to the library, and start working on it. He has devoted the rest of his life to turning the dream of a practical jetpack – ‘one of the coolest desires left to mankind’ – into a reality.
In the years after that conversation in the pub, he snuck into university math lectures until his math was good enough to do the calculations of how to generate enough thrust. He studied how the Wright brothers developed their first airplane. After university he got a job with a company to learn how technology was brought to market, and moved to Christchurch to be near its university’s mechanical engineering department. And each night he worked on developing the device in his garage.
Along the way he encountered all the problems which had challenged his predecessors: how to make a jetpack that could lift enough weight, be controlled by a single pilot, and which would fly for longer than the minute achieved by historical versions such as the Bell Rocketbelt. He overcame risks which scuppered many other pioneering inventions throughout history, like how to keep the project safe, solvent, and on the right side of regulations. Part of his challenge was simply how to keep sane while secretly developing a technology that might one day change the world … but has to stay securely locked in your garage until the day you have a working model. To keep the project going he had to remortgage his house three times.
He also encountered some problems he hadn’t envisaged, such as the time when his youngest son was in trouble at school and the teacher told Glenn and his wife that their
son must have a vivid fantasy life, ‘because he believes you have a jetpack in your garage.’
As Glenn says, “we had to get her to sign a nondisclosure agreement.”! !
Thirteen years after his first eureka moment in the university library, his model undertook its first lift off with its first test pilot: Vanessa, his wife. A later prototype was tested by
Glenn’s fifteen year old son, surely the first person to fly before he could drive.
In the next decade he and his growing team developed the controls (two sticks similar to joysticks, one for height and one for direction), a parachute system for landing, and made the jetpack one of the safest vertical takeoff micro-aircrafts in history. They also developed a computer program to reduce the time needed to train before you step into the jetpack to five minutes.
In 2008 – eighty years after Buck Rogers and his city-leaping ‘jumping belt’ first appeared – the Martin Jetpack was introduced to the world, at the Oshkosh Airshow in Wisconsin, USA. It drew some of the biggest crowds the in the airshow’s six decade history, and in the next day alone, was the subject of 970 TV news stories. Subsequently, it has featured in the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, GQ, and many others. It has been named one of Time Magazine’s Top Fifty Inventions of the year for 2010, and has seen Glenn feature on Jay Leno, David Letterman.
Today, the Martin Jetpack can fly for over 30 minutes at speeds up to 74 km/h and altitudes above 5,000 feet. It is powered by a a gasoline-fueled, 200-horsepower engine that turns a pair of carbon-Kevlar rotors. And because it runs on gas, users will be able to fuel up at regular gas stations.
Before its 2008 unveiling, the Martin Aircraft Company had expected to take three or four orders. Instead they have taken thousands, from first responders, border patrols, and search and rescue, and pipeline inspection teams, amongst others. Next, it plans to develop one for leisure and personal use, for anyone who wants the experience of riding a ‘motorbike in the sky’. The company is currently preparing for its IPO.
Glenn’s combination of technical knowhow, entrepreneurial savvy, down to earth New Zealand charm, and persistence in pursuit of every science fiction fan’s dream make him an inspiring speaker for any audience.
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