Over the weekend, a video of a man gliding over Paris on a tiny platform offered the internet a bit of unifying delight.
As President Emmanuel Macron of France applauded alongside other attendees at the Bastille Day parade, the man gracefully soared and dipped, clutching a rifle.
Thousands on social media asked: Who was he? A soldier? What is that flying board? Can I have one for Christmas?
Quick answers: He was not a soldier. He was Franky Zapata, a professional Jet Ski racer and inventor; he was riding a creation of his called the Flyboard Air; and no, you may not.
So will you ever be able to fly to work or school? Don’t count on it. But technology is not the primary issue, experts say. Here’s what’s to blame for your low-altitude life:That tiny adorable jet engine spits exhaust that is nearly as hot as lava and could kill you.
No, technology is not the only issue. But we cannot ignore it altogether. For more than 100 years, inventors have been promising, “You’ll just have to wait until the day after tomorrow and you’ll be flying in your car,” said Andrew Glass, the author of “Flying Cars: The True Story.” And for nearly as long, flying adventurers have delighted crowds with their jet suits and rocket belts.
The challenges to turning these devices into something that a wide group of people can safely use include weight, cost and ease of use.
There’s an inherent tension in designing a car that can also fly. While lighter is better for flying, a car that is too light is unsafe for the road, Mr. Glass said.
[Despite high hopes, self-driving cars are “way in the future.”]
Hovering platforms generally rely on jet engines. The smaller the diameter of an air stream, the hotter and faster it must be, said Stergios Papadakis, a condensed matter physicist at Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory.
“Little jet engines tend to have exhaust in the 1,100 degrees Fahrenheit temperature range and exhaust velocities in the 2,000-kilometer-an-hour range,” Dr. Papadakis said. “That is dangerous to have near yourself.”
This is partly why the Zapata Flyboard Air showcased in Paris has impressed many. It’s tiny. It can reach speeds of 118 miles per hour, fly to heights of 10,000 feet and stay in the air for 10 minutes, according to France 24.
More important, the operator in Paris managed to take off, maintain control and land without incinerating himself.
But he could do all that only because of his training as a professional Jet Ski champion.
The engineering obstacles shrink when one is working with water instead of air. And the Flyboard’s predecessor, a sort of flying Jet Ski, can now be rented by just about anyone with enough money to burn.
Yaddiel Rodriguez, the manager of Luquillo Flyboard in Puerto Rico, said that most customers manage to fly 15 feet into the air their first time. Eventually, they get to 50. No, it won’t get most people to work, but the more important point is that you feel “like you’re in a movie,” he said.Regulators are worried you’ll do something stupid like run out of gas while driving over Los Angeles.
But what if getting to work is the point? Sometimes it has been. One of the flying car models that got furthest in the first half of the 20th century was a vehicle intended to assist traveling salesmen, Mr. Glass said. The ConvAirCar operated like a normal car. But when the salesman was ready for a trip, he’d rent wings and controls that could be attached. Alas, during a test flight in 1947, the pilot read the wrong gas gauge and the vehicle plummeted to the ground. He survived, but the endeavor did not.
Such mishaps have not made a favorable impression. And even now that several models of fully operational, far more advanced flying cars exist, convincing federal regulators that they merit airspace is tricky, said Raja Sengupta, a professor of transportation engineering at the University of California, Berkeley.You say you want to fly. But you actually just want to feel as if you’re flying while driving on asphalt.
After years studying why flying cars have failed, it dawned on Mr. Glass that customers were the problem.
“At the beginning of the century, we thought what everyone was waiting for was a flying car,” he said. “It turns out that people just wanted to feel like they were flying in their cars.” This could be accomplished by designing cars that resembled airplanes.
Militaries, of course, have other reasons for experimenting with personal flight and jetpack devices. In the Vietnam era, the United States government explored using them, but they were too noisy, according to a spokesman for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.
France’s armed forces minister seems newly optimistic, telling France Inter Radio that the latest Flyboard could be used “as a flying logistical platform or, indeed, as an assault platform.” (That might explain why Mr. Zapata chose to fly with what appeared to be either a prop rifle or a real one with no ammunition magazine.)
But again, none of this will help most of us soar over traffic.
In recent years, more than a dozen start-ups have turned their attention to vehicles that leave the ground. (Calling them “flying cars” offends some people, but no better name has emerged.) Many are focusing on air taxi services, and Uber plans to begin some sort of elevated ride-sharing service in 2023.
But in order to break through, these new systems will have to save people enough time and effort to persuade them to give them a try, Dr. Sengupta said.
He recently calculated how much he could shave off commutes for Bay Area professionals if a flying car taxi system were set up. He reduced one popular route by 20 minutes, which he does not believe is sufficient to compel travelers.
But if enough engineers “spend their days sitting and trying to figure out the business model,” he’s convinced that “someday, someone will come up with it.”