June 18, 2024

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Inside Gravity’s daring mission to make jetpacks a reality

The first time someone flies a jetpack, a curious thing happens: just as their body leaves the ground, their legs start to flail. Adrenaline floods into the bloodstream. The lumbrical muscles in the feet tighten, toes grasp desperately at the earth. It’s as if the vestibular system can’t quite believe what’s happening. This isn’t natural. Then suddenly, thrust exceeds weight, and – they’re aloft. Millions of years of evolution are overcome in an instant, two dimensions become three. Latitude, longitude, altitude.

It’s that moment, lift-off, that has given jetpacks an enduring appeal for over a century. Human beings have long dreamed of flying outside the confines of an aircraft, but without lift-off, existing means – parachutes, hang gliders, wing suits – are really elegant ways of extending a fall.

“It’s indescribable, in an overwhelming, visceral kind of way,” Richard Browning says. Browning, who is 41, brown-haired and bearded, with the lean physique of an endurance athlete, is the founder and CEO of the jetpack startup Gravity Industries. (Its slogan: “we build 1,000 horsepower jet suits.”) He is also the company’s main designer and chief test pilot. Since launching Gravity three years ago, Browning has taken off thousands of times, performed live demonstrations in more than 30 countries, set a Guinness World Record (twice) and accrued more than ten million YouTube views for his exploits. But he still remembers his first lift-off: it was November 2016, on a farmyard a few minutes from his house in Salisbury.

At the time, Browning was an oil trader, with a steady desk job at the petroleum giant BP. But Browning has always been a tinkerer, and drawn to pushing limits. He runs ultramarathons; practises calisthenics, a form of intense bodyweight training (he does push-ups while standing on his hands); and served six years in the Royal Marines Reserve, earning his green beret. At BP he had developed an innovative method of tracking global oil movements by monitoring ships’ GPS transponders. The system was built on a £20,000 budget and, he says, made the company £50 million within six months. (Similar systems are now standard across the industry.) “He would always be doing something else, something big, something unusual,” Maria Vildavskaya, one of Browning’s former colleagues and Gravity’s chief operating officer, says.

In the spring of 2016, Browning decided to buy a jet engine on the internet. It was not an entirely impulsive purchase: Browning comes from a long line of aeronauts. His maternal grandfather, Sir Basil Blackwell, was a former CEO of Westland Helicopters, the other a wartime pilot. His father, Michael Browning, was also an aeronautical engineer and a serial inventor. As a child Browning would spend his holidays home from boarding school helping out in his father’s workshop. Together they would build model gliders from balsa wood, then drive up to a nearby hilltop to launch them. “Thanks to my father and my grandfather, I could probably describe how a jet engine works at the age of ten,” he says.

The engine Browning bought was a micro gas turbine. Essentially jet engines in miniature, micro gas turbines work by compressing air at extremely high velocity, then burning it with fuel (usually kerosene) to generate thrust. Although far too small for civilian aircraft, the technology has advanced rapidly in recent years, largely thanks to amateur enthusiasts and a growing market for military training drones. “The world of micro gas turbines had been entirely dominated by model aircraft people, so they’d accelerated in this kind of unbound way,” Browning says. The chief draw is their size: an engine not much larger than a 2L Coke bottle and weighing only 1.9kg can put out 22kg of thrust. Join a few together, Browning theorised, and you’d have enough power to lift a person.

Browning fired up the engine as soon as it arrived. “My god, the noise was unbelievable,” he says. Encouraged, he built an aluminium arm housing, and repurposed the trigger from a power drill as a throttle. Soon he was standing in a country lane with what looked like a supercharged leaf blower on one arm, attached to a fuel tank in a mop bucket. “It was a profound moment,” he says. He worried that the torque from the engines would twist his arm off, but “it was just a spongy push, like a firehose of water.”

Over the following months, Browning’s jet suit became an obsession. Every night, he would wake up at 1am, work for three or four hours on the suit in a spare bedroom, and then sleep on the train commute into London. One engine became two, then four, then six: two attached to each arm mount, and one strapped around each ankle. The fuel bladder he hid inside a rucksack, secured with a climbing harness. At first, he kept the idea mostly to himself. “Nobody thought that it would work,” he says. At weekends, Browning would drag his family out to the farmyard to test it. While his children played, Browning attempted to fly.

The early tests were a string of failures. Browning couldn’t stay aloft, managing only a series of elongated bounds. He frequently fell, and when he tried using a safety harness he found himself being thrown around like a marionette. The engines were temperamental, and expensive. Every breakage required sending it back to the German manufacturer for refurbishment. “It was just chaos,” he says. “A little pop and a flash and a bit of smoke, and something would have shorted. I was completely exhausted and thinking, what am I doing?” Still, with each failure, there was progress. “I was driven by a slightly irrational excitement for the journey,” he says. “I kept thinking: this works.”

Then, one weekend in November 2016, it happened. After another brief Moon bounce, Browning held down the throttle trigger, leaned hard on his arm engines and – lift-off. There’s footage of the moment: Browning, one leg flailing, flying across the courtyard, and landing slightly off balance. The flight lasted a little more than six seconds. But still, one thought crossed his mind as he beamed for the camera: “I just flew! I just flew!”

Richard Browning, founder of Gravity Industries

Shamil Tanna

The idea of jetpacks dates back to at least 1919, when a Russian inventor called Alexander Fedorovich Andreev filed a patent for a rocket housed inside a knapsack. (Until the 21st century, almost every jetpack was in fact a rocket pack.) Andreev imagined soldiers wearing the devices, allowing for “the siege of fortresses, bypassing all earth obstacles [to] fly over freely to the rear of the enemy.” His device was never built, but the idea spread. During World War 2, the Nazis worked on the Himmelstürmer, a wearable V1 rocket intended to enable troops to leap high obstacles. That didn’t make production either, but when the US military recruited Germany’s rocket scientists after the war, jetpacks came with them. By the 1960s, the US armed forces were testing several designs, including a “jump belt” dubbed Project Grasshopper, as well as flying platforms intended to carry snipers high above the battlefield.

In 1962, Bell Aerosystems debuted a silver and white jetpack design, with two foil-covered exhaust nozzles protruding out from behind its fuel tanks. Dubbed the Bell Rocket Belt, it ran on hydrogen peroxide, and could carry a pilot for 21 seconds, enough time to fly about 250m. Though its limited range proved useless for military applications, the Bell Rocket Belt caused a sensation. Soon jetpacks were appearing everywhere from The Jetsons to Bond movie Thunderball – in which James Bond (actually pilot Bill Suitor) flew a Bell Rocket Belt. Even decades later, jetpacks starred in The A-Team and the 1984 Olympic opening ceremony. Everyone agreed they were the future of personal transportation – it seemed to be just a question of when.

But then the jetpack fizzled. Rocket propulsion was inefficient and heavy; despite improvements, pilots were unable to carry enough hydrogen peroxide to fly for more than 30 seconds. In such a short window, you couldn’t fly high, or very far, nor carry heavy loads. Beyond the spectacle, nobody could quite work out what jetpacks were for. Bell abandoned the Rocket Belt in the 1970s, and then so did almost everybody else. A few die-hard inventors continued to pursue the cause, with sometimes fanatical zeal. (In 1999, a US startup’s attempt to replicate the Bell Rocket Belt ended in a lawsuit, kidnapping and murder.) But mostly, jetpacks became a joke – they promised us jetpacks – about what the future might have been.

Within a few weeks, Browning had refined his jet suit system enough to make regular, sustained flights. He moved the thrusters on his feet (too unwieldy) to a spot on his lower back. Between his arms and the rear pack, the jet exhausts form what Browning calls “a teepee of thrust, like the poles of a tent.” When we feel ourselves falling, we intuitively put out an arm to catch ourselves, so flying was surprisingly intuitive. “Logically, it is a Newtonian process of just throwing high velocity air one way and you being pushed the other,” he says. With some seed funding from a friend, Browning filed a patent application for the suit and formed a company. He named it Gravity Industries, after his newly vanquished foe.

Browning was conflicted over how to unveil his creation. When in his early teens, Browning’s father gave up an office job to start his own company, selling an innovative mountain bike suspension of his own design. “He constantly talked about the success that we were going to enjoy, hopefully, with this breakthrough,” Browning says. But the business struggled, and the family fell into financial trouble. Browning’s parents’ marriage fell apart. “It was a great engineering idea, but it was a pretty cutthroat environment at the time, and he got screwed over by a series of people,” Browning says. Browning’s father struggled with his mental health, and when Richard was 15, he died by suicide.

“When my father died, I had a very powerful example of what can go wrong when you follow a pioneering idea – you know, most of the time it doesn’t work out,” Browning says. Even as he found himself caught up in the potential for the suit, he thought about his father. “I’m terrified of risk,” he says. “I hate the idea of seeing risk hurt me, or someone else, or cause the financial instability – and then hurt – that I saw as a kid.” Browning called his jet suit the Daedalus, after the mythical Greek inventor and father of Icarus, he who flew too close to the Sun.

Initially, Browning didn’t have much of a business plan. To mitigate his chances of failure, he didn’t quit his job, but took a two-year sabbatical (he officially left BP in 2019). “I was mentally prepared for this being a sort of YouTube five minutes, then going back to the day job,” he says.

On April 1, 2017, he launched Gravity, simultaneously releasing two short YouTube videos, one with WIRED, and another with Red Bull. The response was immediate. The media christened Browning “the real-life Iron Man”. “The videos did, like, a billion impressions within a week,” Browning recalls. Shortly afterwards he received a call from Chris Anderson, the founder of the TED conference. “He said ‘Oh my god, please come and do a talk. We’ve made some space on the same day as Elon Musk and the Pope.’” The venture capitalist Tim Draper, who has invested in Tesla and Twitch, invested $650,000 after seeing Browning fly the suit once in a San Francisco car park. The deal, signed on the back of a $100 note, valued the fledgling company at $6.5 million.

Richard Browning in the Gravity workshop, which is situated in an outbuilding of his house in Salisbury

Shamil Tanna

In June, I visit Browning at the New Forest Water Park in Hampshire. It’s a tranquil morning: waves ripple across the water, blackbirds sing in the trees overhanging the banks. The coronavirus lockdown has eased, and Browning has come to the lake to test some alterations to the suit, and film some advertising footage for a rum brand. The pandemic, as for so many people, upended Browning’s year and his business. Most of Gravity’s revenue comes from flying at live events around the world – China, Arizona, Japan – for which it charges up to £100,000, and also from flight training experiences, all of which had to be delayed or cancelled. Still, Browning says, it’s not been a complete loss. “We’ve got loads of R&D now taking place that we otherwise wouldn’t have been able to do.”

Much has changed since his first flights. For one thing, Browning is no longer Gravity’s only pilot. Today, the team is about 12 people – some full-time, some volunteers. They include engineers, former gymnasts and stunt performers; two of his team arrive at the lake wearing crew jackets from the set of Black Widow. “They’re light, available, and good at following instructions,” Browning jokes. When they’re not flying jetpacks, the team members fly camera drones, capturing footage for Gravity’s YouTube channel.

The suit is also greatly improved. “The whole suit is 3D printed now,” Browning says, climbing into the back of Gravity’s mobile workshop, a converted horse box which now houses multiple suits, camera equipment and tools. “It means we can constantly iterate the designs. We’re always making them lighter, more comfortable, more compact.” The rear engines are now a single large turbine, capable of putting out 50kg of thrust. This will be soon replaced by a trio of next-generation engines, which are lighter and more powerful. “The latest iteration, sitting on my workbench, start in ten seconds,” Browning says, visibly excited. Either side of the engine, two large white fuel bladders carry enough fuel – kerosene or diesel – for up to a four-minute flight. A heads up display inside his helmet shows the pilot altitude, engine status, fuel reserves, and current speed. His current record is 137kph.

Browning pulls on the newest addition to the suit: a pair of webbed trousers that, with his legs extended, form a tail wing. At high speed, air rushing underneath the wing creates additional lift, allowing him to fly further and faster. “The ultimate goal is you have a leg wing, and then when you open your legs, scissor out an upper body wing as well, Buzz Lightyear-style,” he says. “Now you can fly along using hardly any power, at wingsuit speeds, using 20 per cent of the fuel we do now – like a Harrier aircraft.”

He wriggles the suit’s life jacket over his head. For safety reasons, Gravity pilots fly over water wherever possible. Though Browning estimates the Daedalus will fly up to 1,800m, he has yet to exceed 10m. Above that you enter a dangerous window: too high to survive a fall, but too low to open a parachute. “Here, worst case is you’re going to fall 20 feet in the water, and need to replace an engine,” he says. Each engine is electronically isolated, connecting to a glowing control unit on Browning’s chest; a single failure means he still has enough thrust to land. “Our ethos is we always take recoverable risk,” Browning says, clicking on the harness. “My rule is to not have my life depending on a piece of technology.”

Flight animals look unnatural on the ground. Stooping under the weight of the pack and restricted by the leg wing, Browning waddles over to the water’s edge. A proboscis holding a 360° camera protrudes out over his shoulder, and another from his helmet, giving him the look of a strange insect. Then, as he has done hundreds of times, Browning pulls the pack’s ignition trigger and the engines whirr into life. Within a few seconds the engines are at temperature, as loud as a scream, and those among the small crowd watching push in their earplugs and pull out their phones. Browning walks out on to the jetty, holding his arms out wide, the wash from the engines throwing plumes of water into the air. The birds in the canopy, no doubt unsettled by the unexpected turn of events, take flight. Then Browning lowers his arms towards the floor, and, like a gymnast rising onto the hanging rings, so does he.

Potential pilots can rent a jet suit the way they might a supercar

Shamil Tanna

Browning is not the only one trying to resurrect the jetpack. The arrival of micro gas turbines has prompted a new generation of inventors to take the idea seriously again.

In 2008, a Swiss aviator, Yves Rossy, crossed the English Channel wearing a microturbine-powered wing. Rossy, known as the “Jetman”, performs at air shows around the world, and in 2015 signed a sponsorship deal with the state of Dubai. That same year an Australian entrepreneur named David Mayman demonstrated the JB-9, his own take on the traditional jetpack design, with a flight around the Statue of Liberty. And in August 2019 Franky Zapata, a French inventor, also crossed the English Channel, standing atop a hoverboard-like device called the Flyboard Air.

The Flyboard Air is based on the Flyboard, which Zapata created in 2011. The Flyboard uses a jet ski engine to fire jets of water at high pressure, letting a person surf above the water – a water jetpack. Zapata’s company, Zapata Racing, has sold more than 10,000 of them, chiefly to high end beach resorts and as accessories for luxury yachts. The Flyboard Air swaps the water jets for six micro gas turbines. “It’s almost like driving a jet ski, in a way, except you can’t see the waves,” Zapata says.

Each design has its advantages – and limits. Rossy’s flights are soaring, high-altitude spectacles, but his wing must be launched from an aircraft, and can only be flown by highly trained wingsuit pilots. Zapata’s Flyboard Air, although faster and boasting a greater range than traditional back-worn designs, is even more limited: only Zapata has flown it. The drag from onrushing air exerts tremendous pressure on the pilot – angled forward, he is essentially a human wing – and low level turbulence can easily throw the board off balance. “It’s like doing a chair sit [against] the wall, but increased by ten,” Zapata says.

The cause has also faced setbacks. In 2019, Rossy resigned from Jetman Dubai after, he claims, the state stopped paying him and his team. (Jetman Dubai was asked to respond for this article.) “It’s a sad story,” Rossy says. Though he left, Rossy also claims Dubai retains the license for his original wing design, and rehired two of Rossy’s former students to continue the programme. In January 2020, one of them, Vince Reffet, performed a vertical takeoff in the Jetman wing; although spectacular, an engine failure at low altitude would have resulted in certain death. “They put their life in the balance. That is exactly the spirit that I didn’t want to follow,” Rossy says. (“It’s so dangerous, what they’re doing,” Mayman agrees.) Rossy is now seeking funding for a new wing design.

Zapata has also had financial difficulties. In 2016, he sold Zapata Racing to Implant Sciences, a US defence contractor, but the deal soured when a $1.3 billion fraud case involving US hedge fund Platinum Partners had a knock-on to one of its holdings, DMRJ Group, which had in turn invested in Implant Sciences.

“It took me years to get out,” Zapata says. To date, R&D for the Flyboard Air has largely been funded by sales of Flyboards, but as the market becomes saturated, sales have slowed. “All of the people that dream of flying above the water have one,” he laments.

Richard Browning wearing the V6 iteration of his jet suit

Shamil Tanna

Faced with such limitations, jetpack startups are once again facing the same question they did in the 1960s: now that they’re here, what are jetpacks for?

An obvious candidate is military use. Browning has had interest from the British armed forces, and participated in various training exercises, landing the suit atop tanks and aircraft carriers. He foresees the Daedalus being used to launch Marines from aircraft carriers, or transport equipment rapidly across the battlefield. “The next few generations of suits will lift another 50kg, so from a military or search and rescue point of view we could travel for long distances and lift heavy things,” he says. In September, Browning did a test flight with air ambulance services in the Lake District.

Mayman and Zapata have similarly had interest, and some funding, from the US and French armed forces. At last year’s Bastille Day celebrations, Zapata flew in Paris’s military parade, brandishing a rifle (empty) as he swooped in front of delighted crowds, including President Macron. Still, as yet the military interest has not solidified into orders. The jetpacks’ ungainliness, noise and short range mean that at least for now, their field potential is limited, and they have increasing competition from manned and autonomous drones.

Faced with this reality, some of the companies are now pivoting into aerial vehicles. Mayman’s Jetpack Aviation is working on a device it calls the Speeder; powered by five jet engines and with the look of a Star Wars prop, it promises up to 30 minutes of flight at speeds over 240kph. Zapata, too, is working to make the Flyboard Air more consumer friendly: a simplified version called the EZ-FLY – it has handlebars, like a flying Segway – will go on sale in 2021. “It’s a machine that everyone can fly,” he says. But his biggest reveal is yet to come: Zapata is also developing a prototype for a jet-powered flying car. “It’s a baby of a Formula 1 car and a racer drone,” he says. “We have no doors, We have no wheels. It’s just a seat.”

Abandoning jetpacks to build vehicles requires taking on a much larger market, already brimming with competitors. In recent years, a host of startups have started building Electric Vertical Take Off and Landing (E-VTOL) aircraft, sometimes called flying cars. “Seven years ago there were five companies in the E-VTOL space,” Mayman says. “There’s now 240.” They include major corporations such as Airbus and Boeing, as well as tech giants like Uber, which insists it will launch a flying taxi service in 2023.

Competing with E-VTOLs also requires facing up to an awkward, retrograde feature of jetpacks: their reliance on fossil fuels. “A lot of people are buying into the electric dream. They see the propulsion system we use as being antiquated,” Mayman says.

“We are not politically correct,” Rossy agrees.

To jetpack pilots, their reliance on kerosene is not a drawback, but an advantage. Despite the hype, E-VTOLs still struggle with limited range and long recharging times. Jet-powered VTOLs, on the other hand, could land and refuel using existing infrastructure. “Today is not a good century to fly fully electric,” Zapata says. “You can store 20 times more energy in kerosene than energy in a battery. Most of the cars on this earth are still thermic. The plane you took to go on vacation – this plane is electric? No. There is a reason for that.”

With existing battery chemistries, an electric jetpack is all but impossible. “You would need about 25kg of batteries to get about 20-30 seconds worth of flight and then land again. It would be a bit pointless,” Alex Wilson, Gravity’s avionics design lead, says. Still, the company is working to develop an electric training rig, which would be tethered to a power cable, and lower its emissions and fuel costs.

Browning is keen not to get too far ahead of himself. “I’m not trying to claim we’ve got something that is going to compete with urban mobility solutions,” he says. “Maybe it can eventually lead to that through the electric version, as battery technology advances. But it’s not that at the moment.” To date, Gravity has sold two Daedalus suits, for £350,000 each. But Browning doesn’t intend to mass produce them. “It would be very easy to hurt yourself with these if you don’t know what to do with them,” he says. Instead, Gravity now offers a membership system, similar to some supercars, where customers can pay for regular training in the suits, and fly them under supervision at specific venues. “We’re more in that world, because it allows us to protect people, and protect our brand as well,” Browning says.

The immediate future of the Daedalus is not as a consumer product, but as a sport. For the last year, Gravity has been working on a global race series, taking inspiration from the Red Bull Air Race and F1. The events will take place over water, and feature teams of two pilots competing head to head, navigating around obstacles, “pushing the limits of man and machine, flying like real world superheroes,” Browning says. The first race was set to take place in Bermuda in March, until the pandemic happened. “We had everything in place,” Browning says. Covid-19 permitting, he now hopes to start the series in 2021. In the meantime, he’s focused on improving the suit.

Most of the jetpack entrepreneurs I spoke to hope that the devices will one day be everywhere. “The way I look at it, we have sedans and SUVs on the roads, just as we have scooters and bicycles,” Mayman says. Until then, their challenge is the same facing every entrepreneur: to find a market for them, so that they can continue to refine the technology. “There is a business [for jetpacks],” says Rossy. “It’s fun. You don’t need a paraglider to go from A to B. It’s just fun. I think the main business will be the fun business.”

After the test flight, we head back to Browning’s workshop, now its own outbuilding on the grounds of his house in Salisbury. Half a dozen iterations of the Daedalus hang on the walls, and spare parts and prototypes litter every surface. Here and there are little mementos: Iron Man memorabilia, event lanyards, clippings of articles about Gravity. Near his desk hangs a cluster of family photos, and a large illustration of Browning’s father pedalling a kind of paraglider – the inventor in flight. “I’m reliving the pathway that I saw my father try and run down,” Browning says. “I think that’s part of why I keep finding myself in these weird realms, because I felt we were so close, and my father was so close, and he never quite got there. I’m trying to relive and make good that terrible story.”

There’s no doubt that Browning has built something remarkable – something that makes people’s legs grasp for the Earth. He’s sanguine about Gravity’s prospects. “Sadly, [my father] taught me one of those valuable lessons the hard way about never getting too carried away. This could all be nothing in a year’s time,” he says. “There’s no rulebook on how we build this business, let alone with the outside world now moving around in a totally unpredictable way.”

“But in the moments when I wallow in that, I do have to just take a moment and think, gosh, but I am doing something which is so close to what he would love.” Browning carries his gear back in from the truck and tosses it to the floor. There’s a thud as it lands. Then he leaves me to have lunch with his family.

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