By Jack Stubbs
FARNBOROUGH England (Reuters) - Once the preserve of science fiction, a one-man flying machine is now a viable, cost-effective option for the police and military, according to UK manufacturer Parajet International.
Paramotors - which require pilots to use a parachute-shaped glider and a motor-driven propeller strapped to their back - have been popular among amateur flying enthusiasts and extreme-sport fanatics for several years.
But Parajet, which began making paramotors over 10 years ago, says they are becoming increasingly popular as a cheaper alternative to light aircraft for police and military, particularly in developing countries.
"In the Middle East and South America they're using them for a multitude of different things," managing director Tom Prideaux-Brune told Reuters at the Farnborough Airshow.
"Border patrol, search and rescue, aerial reconnaissance, medical supply, anti-poaching operations - all sorts of different things."
Prideaux-Brune said there was also interest from forces in India and Pakistan, and that paramotors had been successfully used by police in the United States to track down cannabis farms, stolen vehicles and illegal dog-fighting rings.
"The reason that was really successful was because they had a very minimal budget ... things like helicopters, they cost a lot of money to run," he said.
"One person was able to take off and fly over a vast area of woodland for two hours. They located the cannabis farms and then simply called in the troops. Instead of 30-40 guys on the ground sweeping an entire forest, it required just three. It's really very efficient."
Parajet currently makes and sells around 300 paramotors a year. Each "system" - which includes a glider, motor-driven propeller harness, helmet and safety equipment - is built using aircraft-grade aluminium and costs about 9,000 pounds ($15,400).
Although the technology is not new, Parajet says it is the first company to produce paramotors to a military specification and is targeting developing countries trying to make the most of more modest defense and law-enforcement budgets.
"We're not saying ‘Hey listen, a paramotor can do the job of a helicopter.’ What we’re saying is that at certain times a paramotor can be used as an appropriate, cheaper alternative," said Prideaux-Brune. "Don't send a dumper truck to do a wheelbarrow's job."
Paramotors, which can be packed down into a compact kit for storage in the back of a vehicle, can launch very quickly with minimal space. They are capable of flying slowly at low altitudes and are currently used by mountain search and rescue teams to access remote locations.
Police are also looking to use them in built-up, urban areas as a cheaper alternative to drones, said Prideaux-Brune.
"Something like the London Olympics, it would have been very easy to have guys flying very high up, observing for danger," he said.
But the British public are unlikely to see airborne policemen flying overhead any time soon, as paramotors are best suited to countries with settled, mainly dry weather.
"Sadly flying in heavy rain is not advisable," said Prideaux-Brune. "Eventually the canvas will become very heavy and wet, and that’s not so good."
(Editing by Mark Potter)