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Call them the Rocket Marines, but the jet-propelled men and women are now a reality, at least in the DARPA-funded labs at Arizona State University. It was achieved through the simple means of turning a jetpack on its side, at least mostly, and settling for a sizable increase in running speed. This means the jetpack itself can be vastly smaller than a flight device — just slip it on like a backpack, and away you go.
The project is called 4MM, for Four Minute Mile. This isn’t an unachievable goal for a human unassisted, especially well-conditioned professional soldiers, but these same soldiers are often burdened with enormous amounts of equipment, weapons, and armor. More to the point, just being able to run one four-minute mile doesn’t mean you can run two in a row. If a jetpack can get a sprinting speed for a jogging effort, any wearer could sprint for as long as they could normally jog.
In fact, that’s been the main achievement of the tests thus-far: times only decreased by a few seconds per mile with the jetpack, but that’s while carrying the roughly 10-pound jetpack itself, and more importantly the runners expended less energy over that time. Called the metabolic cost to the runner, this basically means that soldiers will be more mobile, for longer.
The jetpack uses an onboard power source to run dual rotors with side-facing air intakes — there aren’t many details out there about the mechanics of 4MM just yet. Still, when combined with DARPA’s impressive Warrior’s Web exosuit, 4MM could bring us closer than ever to a genuine cyber-soldier.
Mobility is a huge part of the military dominance shown by developed powers over less developed ones. Think about the 1993 Battle of Mogadishu, Somalia, in which exactly 18 American soldiers died while Somali militias took literally thousands of casualties. By far the major reason for this was training and equipment. Increases in mobility allow new and more effective tactical maneuvers — and while that might sound banal, strategy is still by far the most important military technology in use today.
That’s probably the biggest problem for a jetpack like this, that it’s not versatile enough. Sure, it’s nice to be able to run around the track real fast, but track-like conditions are rarely found in war. Would a jetpack help a soldier chase insurgents through the jagged, rocky hills of the Korangal Valley, or would it hinder them? Would a jetpack be useful over the short-distance sprints across roadways that so often typify modern urban combat? It’s possible that this jetpack is more cool than it is useful — if we still employed human runners for messages, maybe that wouldn’t be the case.
Still, this is the sort of thing that DARPA has learned to do so well: use uniquely enormous government military budgets to fund lots and lots of small projects (this one grew out of work done as a grad student) and harvest the best of each crop. Sure, most of them won’t be worth pursuing — but the proportion that are worth it more than compensate. It remains to be seen whether this jetpack will make the cut, but you simply cannot take one thing away from them: they’ve created jet-propelled soldiers. At the very least that will serve DARPA’s secondary purpose with projects such as this: pumping up the DARPA brand.