Everything you need to know about the cool futuristic jetpacks from Gravity Industries
Interested in the very latest futuristic machines that help the human body extend its limits? Want to know all about the new jetpacks from Gravity Industries? Keep reading to find out more about Richard Browning and his passion.
t’s been a while now since humanity’s been on a quest to create cool jetpacks and the leader of that quest is the British inventor Richard Browning. He’s been working for so long to realize the idea of real-life jetpacks and we can finally enjoy them. But how?
When you’re new to jetpacks one of the things you have to get used to is your body leaving the ground and the way your legs begin to feel “off”. Additionally, adrenaline is just rushing through your bloodstream and you can’t help but feel your feet muscles stiffen while also attempting to hold onto the earth. It’s overwhelming to us human beings because our vestibular system isn’t used to this type of feeling and the initial shock of it adds to the body’s confusion. Jetpacks emulate a feeling that is very unnatural for us. Out of the blue, thrust tops your weight, and boom ‒ you’re way higher than you’re used to being. Literal millions of years of evolution are reduced to a second and then two dimensions turn into three. Latitude, longitude, altitude.
The instant of feeling your body leave the solid ground is the main reason jetpacks have been super popular for a long time now. A lot of us wish to be able to feel how it is to fly without actually being on a plane, that’s a fact. But without that feeling of your body parting with earth, what we’ve come up with so far to emulate that notion: parachutes, hand gliders, and wingsuits. And people have been enjoying those for years.
Richard Browning, who is 42 years old now, describes his experience with jetpacks: ‘‘It’s indescribable, in an overwhelming, visceral kind of way.’’ Richard is from the United Kingdom and four years ago, in 2017, he introduced the jetpacks start-up Gravity Industries. He’s currently the CEO of Gravity and its motto is “we build 1,000 horsepower jet suits.” The inventor isn’t a mere CEO, he’s Gravity’s main designer and chief test pilot. For the four years that the establishment’s existed, the CEO has left the ground on thousands of occasions and he’s also done live demonstrations all over the world in more than 30 countries. The founder set a Guinness World Record on two occasions and has also accumulated more than ten million views on a lot of the videos you can find on Gravity Industries’ channel on YouTube (you can also look watch Browning’s TED talks). Richard has come a long way, but he still recalls the first time he felt what it was like to lift off. The date was November 2016 and it was on a farmyard close to his home in Salisbury.
Back then, Richard was an oil trader who had a stable desk job with the petroleum titan BP. Nevertheless, he was always a tinkerer and was curious to explore his maximum potential. The guy runs ultramarathons, while also doing calisthenics (a type of very harsh bodyweight workout ‒ doing push-ups while standing on his hands) and like that wasn’t enough he also did six years in the Royal Marines Reserve, acquiring his green beret for it. During his time with BP, he came up with and established a new and creative procedure of tracking global oil movements by observing ships’ GPS transponders. The system cost £20,000 to make and Browning claims it brought BP £50 million in a matter of six months. (There are currently systems like Browning’s that are standard in this field of work.) Maria Vildavskaya, who is a previous co-worker of Richard’s, as well as Gravity’s chief operating officer, shares that: ‘‘He would always be doing something else, something big, something unusual.’’
It was the spring of 2016 when Richard made up his mind and purchased a jet engine online. Naturally, this was anything but a spontaneous online order because this particular inventor is brought up by a family that is proud to have a long line of aeronauts. Browning’s grandad, Sir Basil Blackwell, was the CEO of Westland Helicopters and his other grandad was a wartime pilot. Richard’s dad, Michael Browning, was also an aeronautical engineer and a serial inventor. When Richard was just a kid, during the holidays home from the boarding school he’d lend a hand in his dad’s workshop and he and his dad would put together model gliders from balsa wood, then they’d drive to a close hilltop and try them out. What a childhood! Now Richard shares that: “Thanks to my father and my grandfather, I could probably describe how a jet engine works at the age of ten.”
The engine Browning got online was a micro gas turbine. Jet engines in miniature, micro gas turbines operate by compressing air at very extreme velocity, then burning it with fuel (read: kerosene) to produce thrust. Even though it’s too tiny for a regular aircraft, this technology has developed at a very fast pace in the last few years, mainly due to amateur enthusiasts who want to try it out and booming demand for military training drones. Richard claims that: “The world of micro gas turbines had been entirely dominated by model aircraft people, so they’d accelerated in this kind of unbound way.” The main perk is their size ‒ an engine is not a lot bigger than a 2L Coke bottle and weighing only 1.9 kg can manage 22 kg of thrust. The inventor thought that if he got a couple of those together, he’d be able to produce enough power to lift a full-grown individual.
Browning was excited to start the engine as soon as it was delivered. He remembers: “My God, the noise was unbelievable.” He was very motivated and set up an aluminum arm housing and repurposed the trigger from a power drill as a throttle. It wasn’t long after when he found himself outside with what seemed a lot like a very extra leaf blower on one arm, attached to a fuel tank in a mop bucket. He commented on this throwback with: “It was a profound moment.” Richard had doubts regarding the torque from the engines and worried that it would twist his arm off, but now he says that “it was just a spongy push, like a firehose of water.”
In the next months, the British inventor was consumed by the jet suit. Every night he’d get up at 1 a.m. to get three or four more hours of work on his creation in his spare bedroom and afterward he’d sleep on the train commute into London. One engine turned into two, then it was four and then six-two attached to each arm mount and one strapped around each ankle. Richard also tucked away the fuel bladder inside a rucksack, which was fastened with a climbing harness. In the beginning, he didn’t discuss what he was doing with a lot of people. He shares that back then “Nobody thought that it would work.” On Saturdays and Sundays, the young inventor would get his family outside in order to test the machine. While his kids were having the time of their life, their dad took many shots at flying.
The tests that Gravity’s CEO made in the beginning were just a series of multiple fails. He couldn’t remain in the air and only managed to produce a couple of semi-long bounds. He fell… a lot.. and when he experimented by wearing a safety harness, he was just being thrown around all over the yard. The engines were very pricey and unpredictable. Whenever the machines would malfunction, they’d need to be shipped back to the German manufacturer so they could fix the issue. Richard remembers that: “It was just chaos. 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?.” But he kept going because every fail pushed him a little closer to his goal. He shared: “I was driven by a slightly irrational excitement for the journey. I kept thinking: “This works!.”
And finally, one weekend in November of 2016, everything aligned for Richard. After one of his many short bounces, he held down the throttle trigger, leaned hard on his arm engines, and then he was off. You can watch the video of the first successful attempt here. In the video we can see Browning, one leg flailing, flying across the courtyard, and landing safely. The whole thing lasted around six seconds, but he remembers one thing going through his brain: “I just flew! I just flew!”
While it’s true that jetpacks have been super popular lately, they go way back to 1919 when the Russian inventor Alexander Fedorovich Andreev patented the idea of knapsack rockets. Until the 21st century pretty much all jetpacks were actually rocket packs. Andreev pictured the rocket packs being worn by soldiers to help with “the siege of fortresses, bypassing all earth obstacles [to] fly over freely to the rear of the enemy.” Alexander’s machine was never realized but his idea got people talking. In World War II, the Nazis thought they’d create the Himmelstürmer. That was a wearable V1 rocket that was meant to help troops jump through high obstacles. The Himmelstürmer, however, didn’t work out and it remained a mere idea but when the US military brought in German rocket scientists after the war, the idea of jetpacks was still there. By the 1960s, the United States armed forces were trying out a few designs and one of them was the “jump belt” (also known as Project Grasshopper). Another impressive design was the flying platforms which were meant to bring snipers high above the battle action.
Fast forward to 1962 when Bell Aerosystems released their first silver and white jetpack which featured two foil-covered exhaust nozzles sticking out from behind the fuel tanks. It was called the Bell Rocket Belt and operated with the help of hydrogen peroxide. The machine could also lift a pilot for 21 seconds, which amounts to flying around 250m. Although the device faced some restrictions and limitations and wasn’t suitable for military purposes, the Bell Rocket Belt was the shit back then. That’s why quickly after its introduction jetpacks started popping up all over the place ‒ from The Jetsons to Thunderball (one of the old Bond movies where James Bond (or pilot Bill Suitor) flew that very same machine). Years after that, jetpacks were featured in The A-Team and the 1984 Olympic opening ceremony. Most people at the time seemed to believe that these machines were the future of personal transportation and we’re sure they thought the future was soon.
And then the buzz died. The idea of jetpacks was no longer that popular for a few reasons. One of them was that producing rockets was inefficient and required some heavy labor. The other was that even though there were many developments, pilots were never able to lift enough hydrogen peroxide to be up in the air for more than 30 seconds. 30 seconds is very little time and you can’t reach a high point, fly very far or hold heavy items. People seemed to enjoy the show surrounding jetpacks, but they had no idea what the machine’s purpose was. That’s probably why Bell Aerosystems decided to drop the Rocket Belt in the 1970s and many others followed suit. There were only a couple of dedicated inventors who were still interested and they were a little too obsessed with the notion of jetpacks. (Back in 1999, in the United States there was a start-up that tried to copy the Bell Rocket Belt, and what followed was not only a lawsuit but also kidnapping and murder.) To almost all other people, however, jetpacks were nothing but an unrealized funny idea.
Back to Browning. The weeks after his first short successful flight, Richard managed to improve and perfect his jet suit system enough so he could go for regular uninterrupted flights. He moved the thrusters from the position of the feet (because of bulkiness) to a position on the lower back. Between the arms and the rear pack, the jet exhausts create what Browning explains as “a teepee of thrust, like the poles of a tent.” When you feel like you’re falling, your instinct is to try to stretch out your arm to grab onto something and that’s why flying is unexpectedly intuitive. Richard claims that “Logically, it is a Newtonian process of just throwing high velocity air one way and you being pushed the other.” After the inventor perfected his machine, history started to write itself. Richard got funding, then made sure to file for a patent and established a company, which he called Gravity Industries (get it? cause he had just defeated gravity).
The Brit was, nevertheless, unsure about the best way to go about revealing his masterpiece. When Richard was only a teenager, his dad offered him an office job to begin his own company selling a creative and original mountain bike suspension of his design. Richard remembers that “He constantly talked about the success that we were going to enjoy, hopefully, with this breakthrough.” However, the company didn’t do great, and Richard’s family was short on cash while his mom and dad’s relationship also got destroyed. Browning remembers that “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.” Additionally, his dad had issues surrounding his mental health and when Richard was only fifteen years old, his dad took away his own life.
The CEO shared that, “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.” He has also mentioned that even after he realized that the suit was a promising masterpiece, he still had his dad in the back of his mind. That’s why he’s mentioned: “I’m terrified of risk. 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.” The inventor named his first suit the Daedalus, which is the name of the Greek inventor and father of Icarus (who flew too close to the Sun).
Richard didn’t have a solid business plan from the beginning. Because he was looking to avoid risk and factor in the possibility that his new venture wouldn’t work out, he didn’t leave his job right away. Instead, he opted for a two-year sabbatical and didn’t stop working for BP until 2019. He comments on it by sharing: “I was mentally prepared for this being a sort of YouTube five minutes, then going back to the day job.”
The date was April 1 of 2017 when Browning introduced Gravity and at the same time dropped two short YouTube videos. Needless to say, people loved it. In the media world, Richard was now “the real-life Iron Man” and he remembers: “The videos did, like, a billion impressions within a week.” Soon after that Chris Anderson (the person who established the TED conference) got in touch with the inventor. According to Browning, “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!” Then Tim Draper (the venture capitalist who put his money in Tesla and Twitch) provided $650,000 to Richard after he spotted the young inventor flying the suit one time in a car park in San Francisco. The deal was signed on the back of a $100 note and it valued the recently built Gravity at $6.5 million. To some people, the jetpack idea was worth a lot even from the very beginning.
Like many other businesses, Coronavirus did some damage to Richard’s establishment of Gravity Industries. Most of the company’s revenue depends on flying at live events internationally ‒ China, Arizona, Japan ‒ which costs about £100,000. There are also flight training experiences to be factored in, but these had to be postponed or canceled altogether. And even now, Gravity’s CEO finds that it hasn’t been a complete loss and says that “We’ve got loads of R&D now taking place that we otherwise wouldn’t have been able to do.”
Naturally, not a lot has stayed the same since Richard’s first flight. For example, he is no longer Gravity’s only pilot. Currently, there are 12 individuals involved ‒ some work full-time and some volunteer. Some of them are engineers, others are ex-gymnasts and stunt performers. Browning finds that “They’re light, available, and good at following instructions,” and apart from flying jetpacks, they also fly camera drones to get more content for Gravity’s channel on YouTube.
The suit itself also went through an update. Ricard is proud to share that “The whole suit is 3D printed now. It means we can constantly iterate the designs. We’re always making them lighter, more comfortable, more compact.” The rear engines have turned into one large turbine which can generate 50kg of thrust and that will shortly be switched out for a trio of next-generation engines, which aren’t as heavy, but they hold even more power. The suit now features two big fuel bladders holding enough fuel (kerosene or diesel) to last a four-minute-long experience in the air. There is also a heads-up display placed in the helmet which informs the pilot of the altitude, engine status, fuel reserves, and current speed (Richard’s current record is 137kph).
There are also a pair of webbed trousers, which act as a tail wing when the legs are extended. When the speed is sufficient enough, the air coming from under the wing gives this extra lift that enables the pilot to fly for longer distances and do it quicker. Browning explains: “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. Now you can fly along using hardly any power, at wingsuit speeds, using 20 percent of the fuel we do now – like a Harrier aircraft.”
Nowadays, the company’s pilots fly over water whenever they can because it’s safer. Even though the CEO predicts that the Daedalus should one day go as high as 1,800m, as of now he hasn’t gone more than 10m. The reason why is that above 10m one goes into a risky situation ‒ it’s too high to survive the fall but not high enough so the pilots can utilize a parachute. Richard points out: “Here, worst case is you’re going to fall 20 feet in the water and need to replace an engine.” Each of the engines is electronically separate from the rest and they connect to a glowing control unit on the pilot’s chest. He mentions: “Our ethos is we always take a recoverable risk. My rule is to not have my life depending on a piece of technology.”
Fortunately, Richard isn’t the only man on a mission to bring the jetpack back to life. The introduction of micro gas turbines motivated a whole new generation of inventors who were eager to dig at the futuristic machine. For example, back in 2008, Yves Rossy (a Swiss pilot) managed to take on the English Channel wearing a microturbine-powered wing. Rossy, or “Jetman”, does performances at air shows worldwide and six years ago he signed a sponsorship with the state of Dubai. Again in 2016, David Mayman (Australian entrepreneur) demonstrated the JB-9 (which was his version of the conventional jetpack) by flying with it around the Statue of Liberty. Additionally, two years ago Franky Zapata (a French inventor) took over the English Channel too but did it by standing on top of the Flyboard Air (picture a machine that looks like a hoverboard).
The Flyboard Air is an upgrade to the idea of the original Flyboard, which Zapata created ten years ago. The Flyboard features a jet ski engine that serves to fire jets of water at extreme pressure, allowing you to surf on water (basically, a water jetpack). Zapata also established Zapata Racing, which sold more than 10,000 of the devices, mainly to expensive beach resorts and to rich people who want a toy for their boujee yacht. The Flyboard Air provides six micro gas turbines in place of the water jets. Zapata describes the feeling you get: “It’s almost like driving a jet ski, in a way, except you can’t see the waves.”
Each different person’s version of the machine has its perks ‒ and its weak spots. Rossy’s flights are unbelievably high-altitude, however, the wing is launched from an aircraft and can exclusively be flown by trained wingsuit pilots. Zapata’s Flyboard Air is indeed quicker and generates a better range than the conventional versions that are on your back, but the only person who’s flown it is Zapata himself. The power from the oncoming air applies extreme pressure on the person operating the machine ‒ angled forward, Zapata is acting as a human wing (and low-level turbulence can quickly screw up the board’s balance). Zapata explains that “It’s like doing a chair sit [against] the wall, but increased by ten.”
Even though there’s a lot of great experiences and excitement in the jetpack world, things aren’t always going great. Two years ago, Rossy dropped Jetman Dubai after (according to him) the state stopped paying Rossy and his crew. Rossy has mentioned that to him “It’s a sad story,” and that regardless of the fact he left, Dubai still holds the license for the OG wing design and even re-employed two of his ex-students to keep working on the project. Last year, Vince Reffet (one of the students) was part of a vertical flight in the Jetman wing and however impressive it was, an engine break at low altitude led to his death. Rossy has said that “They put their lives in the balance. That is exactly the spirit that I didn’t want to follow.” Mayman also thinks that “It’s so dangerous, what they’re doing.” (Currently, Rossy is looking for funding for a new wing design.)
Zapata has been short on cash too. Five years ago, he sold Zapata Racing to Implant Sciences (a United States defense contractor), however, the deal was off when this $1.3 billion fraud case relating to Platinum Partners (the US hedge fund) affected one of its holdings (called DMRJ Group, which also put money towards Implant Sciences).
Zapata shared that “It took me years to get out.” Even currently, R&D for the Flyboard Air has mainly been financed by sales of Flyboards, however, as the market grows and demands way more, sales are not the best but Zapata claims that “All of the people that dream of flying above the water have one.”
Because there’s a lot of restrictions surrounding jetpacks, the start-ups working on them are asking themselves the same thing they did back in the sixties: what the hell do we use jetpacks for?
One of the apparent answers is that jetpacks would be utilized perfectly in the military. Browning has revealed before that the British armed forces have indeed been keen on finding out more about his product and have even taken part in different training activities like landing on top of tanks and aircraft carriers. Richard envisions that the Daedalus could be put to work by helping launch marines from aircraft carriers or could move equipment speedily throughout the battlefield. He believes that “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.” Back in September of 2020, the CEO also took part in a test flight with the air ambulance crew in the Lake District.
Mayman and Zapata’s product also grabbed the attention of the military services and the United States and French armed forces even funded the inventors’ projects. At 2020’s Bastille Day events, Zapata flew above Paris’s military parade with an empty rifle and people loved it (President Macron was also there). Nevertheless, the military expressing some curiosity is only that ‒ mere curiosity and not much more. Because the jetpacks are still pretty heavy, loud, and can only do a short range, they don’t belong to battle in their current state as there are a lot of restrictions. Moreover, we still have manned and autonomous drones, so why fix something if it ain’t broken?
For this reason, some jetpack-related establishments are now switching to aerial vehicles. Mayman’s Jetpack Aviation is currently sweating over the Speeder ‒ a machine that has five jet engines sort of reminds you of Star Wars, and is supposed to last a 30-minute flight with an awesome speed of more than 240kph. Zapata is also headed in that direction ‒ he’s trying to make the Flyboard Air easier to use with the simplified upgrade called EZ-FLY. The model features handlebars (similar to a flying Segway) and was supposed to be available for purchase this year. Zapata finds that “It’s a machine that everyone can fly.” But that’s not his most exciting project as he is also taking a shot at creating a prototype for a jet-powered flying car. He describes it like this: “It’s a baby of a Formula 1 car and a racer drone. We have no doors, we have no wheels. It’s just a seat.”
Dropping the idea of jetpacks to create vehicles means being part of a bigger market that is already tightly packed. During these last few years, a group of start-ups began creating the Electric Vertical Take-Off and Landing (E-VTOL) also known as flying cars. Mayman commented on that saying that “Seven years ago there were five companies in the E-VTOL space. There’s now 240.” That’s what we call growth. Some of those are big corporations (think Airbus and Boeing) or tech giants (think Uber, which claimed they’d release a flying taxi by the year 2023).
Keeping up with E-VTOLs and being better also means accepting one weird part of jetpacks ‒ the fact that they need fossil fuels to operate. Mayman finds that “A lot of people are buying into the electric dream. They see the propulsion system we use as being antiquated.”
Rossy also acknowledges that by saying “We are not politically correct.”
Nevertheless, for jetpack pilots, the need for kerosene isn’t a negative aspect but a positive one. Regardless of how popular they are, E-VTOLs still face issues of limited range and lengthy recharging. Jet-powered VTOLs, however, could land and refuel utilizing the infrastructure that’s already in place. Zapata explains that “Today is not a good century to fly fully electric. 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.”
Considering the battery chemistries that are out there now, the idea of an electric jetpack is almost entirely unimaginable. Alex Wilson (Gravity’s avionics design lead) finds that “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.” Even though that is true, Gravity is still trying to create an electric training rig, which would be connected to a power cable to decrease emissions and fuel expenses.
Even now Browning is determined to avoid getting carried away in his expectations. He shared: “I’m not trying to claim we’ve got something that is going to compete with urban mobility solutions. Maybe it can eventually lead to that through the electric version, as battery technology advances. But it’s not that at the moment.” So far, two of Gravity’s Daedalus suits have been purchased and each cost £350,000. Nevertheless, Richard doesn’t plan to go into mass production. His reasoning is that “It would be very easy to hurt yourself with these if you don’t know what to do with them.” Instead of selling, Gravity provides a membership plan (such as with some supercars) where customers can pay for training and fly under supervision. The company’s CEO adds that “We’re more in that world, because it allows us to protect people, and protect our brand as well.”
It’s not in the cards for Daedalus to be a consumer product, however, that doesn’t mean it can’t be a part of the sport. Gravity has shown interest in creating a global race series much like Red Bull Air Race and F1. Everything will happen over water and there will be two pilots who go against one another maneuvering around obstacles. Richard describes it as “pushing the limits of man and machine, flying like real-world superheroes.” Everything was scheduled and the debut race was supposed to happen in Bermuda in March of 2020 but then Coronavirus put a stop to it. The British inventor commented by sharing: “We had everything in place.” Last year he mentioned that once Coronavirus allows for it, he would try to do the series in 2021 but until that happens his main goal is perfecting the suit.
It’s a fact that almost all jetpack enthusiasts like Richard wish to see these machines everywhere in the future. Mayman’s point of view is this: “The way I look at it, we have sedans and SUVs on the roads, just as we have scooters and bicycles.” But until then, the hard part for every enthusiast is to discover what market the device will fit in so that people like Browning and Mayman can focus on improving the technology. Rossy thinks that “There is a business [for jetpacks]. 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.”
Richard Browning has come so far but he never forgot where he came from: “I’m reliving the pathway that I saw my father try and run down. 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.” Gravity’s CEO is one of the few people that’s managed to create something extremely extraordinary and add the feeling of people’s legs trying to hold onto the ground. He’s determined to put in the hard work but is always aware that anything could happen with Gravity and shares that “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. There’s no rulebook on how we build this business, let alone with the outside world now moving around in a 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.”
What do you think of Richard’s venture? Would you buy a jetpack to float around for a short period?