The US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is studying the technical feasibility of military jetpacks, and other personal flying platforms, potentially for use by US special forces.

The agency is inviting submissions of research concepts to help it understand the practicality of a “Portable Personal Air Mobility System”, it announced online on 2 March via a Small Business Innovation Research and Small Business Technology Transfer Opportunity (SBO).

HMS Sultan - Crown Copyright

Source: Crown Copyright

Richard Browning, founder of Gravity Industries, demonstrating his jetpack at UK Royal Navy base HMS Sultan in the UK in 2019

Until now jetpacks have mostly been the stuff of fiction, films or spectacle, though some militaries have shown interest recently. In 2020, the UK Royal Navy demonstrated several personnel quickly boarding a boat using jetpacks made by Gravity Industries. The US Special Operations Command reportedly signed a development agreement with JetPack Aviation in 2016. That company’s JB-11 JetPack is powered by six small jet engines, has a top speed of 109kt (200km/h) and an endurance of about 10 minutes.

DARPA says such a system could come from entirely new designs or modifications to existing systems. Some examples of technologies that it is interested in include jetpacks, powered gliders, powered wingsuits, and powered parafoils. The Portable Personal Air Mobility System might be powered by electric propulsion technologies, hydrogen fuel cells or conventional heavy fuel propulsion systems, it says.

“These platforms could serve a variety of military missions, enabling cost-effective mission utility and agility in areas such as personnel logistics, urban augmented combat, [combat search and rescue], maritime interdiction and [special operations forces infiltration and exfiltration],” says the research agency. “Systems may be air deployed to allow for infiltration to hostile territory, or ground deployed to allow for greater off-road mobility without the use of existing vertical take-off and landing aircraft such as helicopters and [Bell Boeing] CV-22.”

The platforms would be one-time use or be could reusable, so long as the system requires minimal repacking and redeployment work.

In contrast to the AFWERX Agility Prime programme, an effort within the US Air Force to develop small electric vertical take-off and landing aircraft, DARPA wants systems that can be carried by one person. The system ought to be storable in one or fewer man-portable containers or mobility bags.

“When deployed, the systems allow mobility for a range of at least 3.1mi (5km) for a single operator, likely at low to medium altitudes,” says DARPA. “Systems should be designed such that assembly and deployment can occur in less than 10min using only simple tools or no tools at all.”

The system must be able to launch without help from an environmental factor, such as wind or elevation.

DARPA wants the system to be stealthy, with low noise and infrared signatures.

The Portable Personal Air Mobility System must be simple enough to operate that someone with no knowledge of it could learn to fly with relatively little training.

“It is anticipated that computer assisted control functions and intuitive interfaces will enable an effective operational system in addition to an overall system design that permits fast, equipment-free set-up,” says DARPA.

For the SBO, DARPA is planning two phases: Phase I will be a feasibility study; and Phase II would focus on maturing proposed technology with further analysis and test campaigns culminating in ground and flight tests. The agency is accepting Phase I proposals for a cost of up to $225,000 for a six-month period of performance, and Phase II proposals for a cost of up to $1.5 million and up to two years of performance.

DARPA says depending on the results of the development effort, Department of Defense users, including special forces units, might be interested in transitioning the technology into an operational capability.

The agency also pitches would-be bidders that the technology might have dual uses.

“Within the private sector, a large market for personal mobility systems exists for emergency first responders, including police, search and rescue, and particularly time critical ambulance response,” DARPA says. “Depending on the system, a wide variety of less critical use cases may emerge for commercialisation including urban mobility or recreation.”