This has to be one of the most ‘futuristic’ developments we’ve seen in some time; a new U.S. patent has been awarded to a company that has plans for a safe, silent personal flight device using electromagnetic ion propulsion as its primary thrust generator and drawing its power wirelessly from earthbound inductive green power broadcast stations.

California’s Personal Flight Systems are taking a serious look at the future of personal flight, and the technology involved will leave you shaking your head.

It’s been seven years now since the dawn of the new millennium, but it just doesn’t feel like we’re living in the future we were promised in the 1980s. There’s no teleportation – fair enough, that still seems a bit far-fetched. No cure for cancer – well, at least they’re making progress. There doesn’t seem to be any good reason, though, why we can’t have cheap, safe, fun commuter jetpacks to fly around with. It’s been over 50 years since the first working prototype jetpack was flown by Bell Aerospace, and the few companies that actually have a working jetpack are using a modified version of the same design, and are unable to sustain flight beyond 30 or 40 seconds. C’mon science, where’s my jetpack?

Thankfully we occasionally hear of efforts to rectify this gaping omission from the personal mobility sphere, and this latest one is worth a special mention, both because of who’s behind it and because of the fascinating technology it leverages. Silicone Valley startup Personal Flight Systems (PFS) has recently been awarded the patent for personal flight using ion electronic air propulsion – a clean technology that has none of the dangerous explosive risks involved with combustion engines.

Ionic Air Propulsion The basic principle behind ion propulsion is to positively charge a fluid and then electromagnetically propel it to create thrust. It’s a very efficient technique that NASA have been using to propel long-distance, unmanned space vehicles. While the amount of thrust it produces is quite small, it can be sustained over a long-term trip to provide a very effective cumulative acceleration that eventually far outweighs the much more powerful but fuel-hungry chemical rockets used for take-offs.

Simple ion-propulsion craft, such as those shown in these videos, can be easily built and are thus often a popular science fair project for students.

The PFS patent adds a few key elements to this well-established technology; most importantly a new design for the capacitative thrust plates that emit and receive the electrical charges, and a system that pre-conditions the air between and around the plates to maximize thrust. The company also plan to remove the heavy power pack from the vehicle and "broadcast" pulses of DC power to the vehicle from ground stations based on theories from Nikola Tesla, the famous inventor and physicist responsible for the AC power system in the early 20th century.

PFS claim their ion-propulsion personal flight vehicles will be safer than helicopters or rockets, with their massive moving parts and explosive gases respectively. Ion propulsion, however, carries its own set of risks – particularly an elevated risk of throat and lung cancer if an individual is to breathe in too much ionized air – although this can be mitigated through a number of techniques.

Interestingly, many of the vehicles described in the patent make use of chemical rockets to provide initial and additional thrust, thus re-introducing some of the safety risks the device seems keen to avoid. And the design of the devices, which in their personal flight form seem to look like a strap-in Segway with an umbrella attached, won’t make them particularly portable.

Still, the end result appears to offer a safe, silent personal flight system that runs primarily on ground-based green power, and the fact that this new patent overwrote existing NASA patents in the field shows that the PFS solution is viewed as a serious innovation with real-world potential.