If you’ve ever dreamed of taking off and flying like Iron Man but couldn’t bear the thought of burning fossil fuels to do it, you may just be in luck.
Britain’s Gravity Industries unveiled and flew an electric version of its jet suit for the first time on Thursday.
Spectators at the Goodwood Festival of Speed in Chichester, England, cheered as one of the company’s test pilots, Sam Rogers, spun the jet pack’s six electric ducted fans and lifted off the ground for a short, tethered flight.
It may not have been the hair-raising aerial display for which the company’s maverick founder Richard Browning is known, but overcoming the limitations of modern battery technology to allow for lift-off was a significant challenge.
“Unfortunately, diesel, gasoline and jet fuel are extremely energy-dense – very hard to compete with,” Mr Browning said.
Generating the amount of power needed to lift a person off the ground required several batteries mounted on the jet pack’s frame. As a result, the electric prototype is significantly heavier than the gas turbine version.
Mr Browning said the electric suit was operating right on the edge of what is possible with modern technology.
“We see this as a sort of beginning that we can improve upon,” he said. “The world and his dog are working on better batteries. So, as they come along we can make the electric jet suit gradually catch up with and eventually outcompete the gas turbine suit.”
One of the company’s jet suit engineers, Archie Sandberg, said: “We did the maths on it and it was so close to being feasible. We just wanted to prove it was possible.
“Even today we were 50-50 as to whether or not it would take off.”
Gravity Industries sells its gas turbine jet suits for more than $400,000 and supervises flights from its UK base.
Mr Sandberg said the company already uses a tethered version of the electric jetpack to help teach its customers to fly before they move on to the jet-powered suits, which run on aviation fuel and generate 1,000 horsepower.
Shortly after the electric jet pack flight, Mr Browning fired up one of the company’s turbine-powered suits for a demonstration, kicking up grass and dust as he took off, making the ride on board three columns of jet exhaust look easy.
Since he unveiled the first version of the jet suit in 2017, Mr Browning has become known as a real-life Tony Stark, performing hundreds of death-defying demonstration flights around the world and breaking two world records.
Often credited with reviving interest in the jetpack as a form of personal transportation after its heyday in the 1960s, Mr Browning has big ambitions for his jet suits.
“The jet suit started as a crazy idea: could you reimagine human flight?”
“I think we've done a pretty good job over the last four years proving that this is about as good as you can get,” he said.
“It's wonderful how it taps into human balance and control like a bicycle – it's a minimalist piece of technology that allows you to do something kind of superhuman.”
But far from being just another plaything for the world’s wealthy, Mr Browning believes there are many uses for his jet suit.
A former Royal Marine, Mr Browning has already demonstrated a possible military application for the technology, as well as a use in search and rescue operations.
“It turns out apart from entertaining people, or giving people the amazing experience of learning to fly one of these – the race series we were due to launch before Covid is still ready to go – military and search and rescue applications have bloomed in a way we never imagined,” he said.
“It just shows what opportunities emerge if you put a capability out there and start experimenting in a very open way.”