Inventor that dazzled FII in Riyadh wants to create F1 for human flight

Jet Suit inventor Richard Browning thinks there is innovation to be found in racing

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Flying feels just like it does in your dreams, according to the man who would know.

Richard Browning was the first person in the world to successfully strap jet engines to his arms and legs to take flight. His contraption - a patented carapace of sorts made up of five miniature jet engines and a fighter pilot helmet - captivated audiences at the Future Investment Initiative in Riyadh, where he hovered for a few minutes outside the host site, the Ritz Carlton.

At FII, a mass convening of the world’s global elite that ended Thursday, one can bump into robot inventors and unicorn builders, the top brass at Saudi Aramco, Brazil’s president or an American astronaut who helped build the International Space Station, among thousands of others.

But it is Browning’s Jet Suit that had people swarming.

“The spirit of the Apollo programme, the Kennedy space mission, the Wright brothers, the wartime drive to build the first jet engine aircraft, all of those lump-in-the-throat journeys against adversity … we tap into that similar spirit,” says Browning, founder and chief test pilot at Gravity Industries. “It is such a humbling thing.”

As the auto and aviation industries race to automate systems and take humans out of the driver’s seat, the Jet Suit is a captivating counterargument to keeping humans in control. And Gravity Industries has plans to make it mainstream – and advance the technology  - through racing. “As soon as I say ‘mine is faster than yours’, throughout human history, that has led to innovation,” Browning says.

He imagines head-to-head racing over bodies of water, since the suit has proven safe in watery crash landings, with the spectacle taking place in coastal cities or tourist hubs. Formula One ignited automotive technology in the 1940s, the Cold War spurred the United States to the Moon in 1969 and entrepreneurs Jeff Bezos, Richard Branson and Elon Musk are now squared off in the commercial space flight race of the 21st century. Browning thinks racing the Jet Suit could help advance the technology.

“We’ve got a chocolate box of attributes: human personalities, drama, speed, Iron Man-like stuff,” he says. Next he’s looking for a broadcast partner who can say: “This is how you do it like Nascar.”

At the moment, the world's first patented Jet Suit can top speeds of 80.4kph and is technically capable of reaching an altitude of 12,000 feet (although for safety purposes, it is flown lower and often over water). The company also has seven trained pilots who Browning says are ready to race.

Two test locations in Los Angeles and outside London will let non-professionals test out the suit for £5,000 (Dh23,800) or one can buy the whole mechanism for £340,000 and fly under Gravity supervision. So far, no one has gone to the emergency room, says Artem Gamzin, who manages business development for Gravity and, while in Riyadh, is serving as an all-purpose roadie.

Browning has been to 30 countries and 92 events in the last two and a half years, and Gamzin supposes, as ground control in Riyadh, he would be the one to phone the ambulance should something go awry.

As of now, the public engagements are footing the bills for the team of 30, who mostly reside in the UK. For instance, Gravity was paid about $20,000 for attending FII, according to Gamzin. The company hasn’t taken any outside funding since a seed round from a well-known investment team in March 2017. Only two months after starting his company, Browning nailed a test flight in front of father-son venture capitalists Tim and Adam Draper (the elder Draper is best known for his early investments in Tesla and Skype), and Gravity landed $650,000 from the billionaire investors after the demonstration in Los Angeles in exchange for 10 per cent equity.

For now, the biggest technical challenge is, in the immortal words of Chicken Run's Ginger, "thrust". The company is currently working on adding wings to the suit, both ones that resemble bat wings along the pilot's shoulder blades and fins attached to the pilot's ankles. Getting this right will allow the suit to go faster with less drag and increase its fuel efficiency, which would allow it to fly longer than its current ten-minute maximum flight time.

A video of Browning flying over crystalline waters in Bermuda shows him zipping along with a prototype of those wings – flying much faster than speeds that the jet engines alone can propel him to – and the effect is similar to a real-life Batman. “I’m now an aircraft,” he says proudly.

But don’t confuse him with French inventor Franky Zapata, who successfully crossed the English Channel on his Flyboard Air, a jet-powered hoverboard, back in August. He left Sangatte, France, and landed in Dover, England, 35km away in 22 minutes.

“We just think that’s terrifying,” Browning says. For now, his Jet Suit is staying closer to the ground.