If you need further proof that we are living in a literal science fiction movie right now, look no further than the fact that the U.S. Defense Department is thinking about strapping jetpacks onto its special forces cadres. Well, actually the term they are using is “portable personal air mobility system,” but you get the picture.
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the Pentagon’s R&D hub for new military technologies, recently opened a bid for research proposals involving said “air mobility” systems. The agency has offered up to $1.5 million in development costs to vendors willing to make flying commandos a reality.
These new systems could include not just jetpacks, but a whole variety of other flying outfits designed to be operated by a single person, including “powered gliders, powered wingsuits, and powered parafoils which could leverage emerging electric propulsion technologies, hydrogen fuel cells or conventional heavy fuel propulsion systems,” a recently published solicitation document states. Said apparatuses could eventually be outfitted with “computer assisted control functions and intuitive interfaces” the agency says, apparently envisioning a literal Iron Man suit.
These superhero outfits might be useful in a variety of military settings and operations, DARPA says, including “urban augmented combat, CSAR [combat search and rescue], Maritime interdiction and SOF Infil/Exfil [special forces operations to get in/out of a given situation].” As such, “a variety of DOD missions and users may be interested in transitioning the technology to an operational capacity including a variety of Special Forces units,” the agency concludes.
So, yes, imagine SEAL Team Six meets Boba Fett, or something else equal parts horrifying and amazing. DARPA seems to want their flying suits to be quiet, resilient, and ready-made and easy to use. The agency says that the products should be designed:
...such that assembly and deployment can occur in less than 10 minutes using only simple tools or no tools at all. The platforms must not require assistance from external equipment or other unique environmental factors (e.g. wind, elevation, etc.) for launch/recovery...When deployed, the platform will be designed with simplified operations in mind, so that someone unfamiliar with the platform could be educated in its safe and effective use with relatively little training.
While jetpacks have existed for decades, they have mostly been used as a novelty act—showing up at airshows and other public events as a form of entertainment. They tend to be noisy, hard to maneuver, and run out of steam pretty quickly, which is why they have never seen operational use by military forces. DARPA, which has played a role in the development of innumerable technological advancements—from GPS systems to the internet—is a good place to at least attempt to turn this dystopian ambition into a reality, though it remains to be seen if they and their private sector partners can pull it off.