European leaders including French President Emmanuel Macron were treated to a demonstration of the Flyboard Air, a sort of gas turbine-powered jetpack/hoverboard/flying platform originally invented by jetski champ Franky Zapata, during Bastille Day festivities in Paris on Sunday.
Zapata carried what certainly appeared to be an unloaded rifle (or a replica of such) as he flew over French military forces parading down the Avenue des Champs-Élysées with the flags of the European Intervention Initiative, a strategic coordination pact between 10 countries. In a clip posted by France2, Macron somehow manages to appear completely nonchalant about this whole thing:
— Le 20Heures France2 (@20hFrance2) July 14, 2019
Uh, does this remind anyone else of something?
According to France24, Zapata appears to have carried the rifle in part due to interest in the Flyboard’s potential military applications. French Armed Forces Minister Florence Parly told France Inter radio that the device “can allow tests for different kinds of uses, for example as a flying logistical platform or, indeed, as an assault platform,” according to the news network. Zapata also said in 2017 that he was working with the U.S. military on the device for combat applications.
There are longstanding and well-known engineering issues that have prevented conventional jetpacks from becoming more than sideshow novelties that also happen to be extremely expensive to operate, with rare exceptions.
Those include the large amount of energy necessary to sustain flight, the difficulty of controlling the craft, and the obvious safety issues inherent in strapping a powerful jet engine to someone’s back.
A September 2018 look at Zapata’s work with the U.S. military in the Drive noted his variant, which is a flying platform, had solved some of those issues by introducing seven computer-controlled jet turbines that send flight data to a tablet-sized display as well as “built-in redundancies and automatic compensation if one of the jet engines fails.”
Zapata advertises a custom-tooled version called the Fly-EZ as ideal for military purposes ranging from naval personnel transfers and routine ground patrols to actual combat insertions and “denied area penetration.” According to the Drive, the craft can carry up to 125kg, fly at 129km per hour for up to 12 minutes, and attain altitudes of 9000 feet, though not necessarily at the maximum load. (France24 cited different specifications for the one used in the demonstration at a maximum speed of 190km per hour for 10 minutes )
However, the Drive noted that it would still be extremely expensive to equip troops with the system (with a prospective price of about $356,000 apiece) and doesn’t solve other issues that came up in prior military inquiries into jetpacks. Those include noise that would disrupt stealth operations, leaving the operator entirely exposed to enemy fire with limited-at-best options for retaliation, and the fact that helicopters can already transport troops and materiel en masse at much longer ranges and durations.
That doesn’t rule out their use in all scenarios — examples could include kitting out military bases for rapid-response teams or use in disaster relief operations — but it does remain to be seen whether the Flyboard will ever be broadly adopted by armed forces.