The real-life Iron Man
Meet Richard Browning and discover how he’s defying gravity with a super-powered, jet engine suit
CEO of Gravity Industries and inventor of the Gravity Jet Suit, Richard Browning has spearheaded grassroots innovation to become a global sensation. Having recognised the potential of his jet suit back in 2015, Browning launched Gravity Industries in 2017 and have ever since been seen zipping through the air, showcasing his creation around the world.
The ability to fly is something we’ve all dreamt about doing as a child, how would you describe the feeling of flying in the suit?
It’s a pretty massive rush every single time, it’s visceral in every sense. When you put the suit on you see the heads-up display fire up, you can feel for over 80 seconds all the engines fuel up, autonomously. You can feel the fuel being fed in, feel the ignition taking place and all the engines accelerating. Once five green lights light up in the heads-up display indicating five engines being ready and idle, your throttle trigger becomes live.
As you start to squeeze that trigger, you can feel the engine roar from 30,000 up to 120,000 RPM (revolutions per minute). It sounds like a hurricane, but when you’re inside it, it’s actually calm. All you do is just feel that thrust and gradually lower your arms and feel the weight come off your feet. There’s this kind of second degree of calm where you are now floating about in free space and strangely, a bit like a bicycle, where you don’t think about steering and pedalling, your brain kind of sorts the rest out. You just feel yourself going where you decided to go. In a three dimensional sense, that’s exactly what it’s like flying a jet suit. It’s a huge credit to the human brain, being able to repurpose itself to this unusual form of balance and control.
What sparked your passion for developing the Gravity Industries jet suit?
My grandfather on my mother side ran Western, the helicopter company, my other grandfather was a wartime aviator and civil airline pilot, and my late father was an aeronautical engineer and maverick. So I suppose I’ve always had a passion for speed, flight and horsepower. I also spent about six years in the Royal Marines reserve and alongside running ultra marathons, doing callisthenics training and weight training, it inspired me to think about the human brain and body being a pretty amazing machine. So I thought, why not blend all of these interests together? See if I could re-imagine how flight could take place for human beings. And rather than sitting inside a vehicle like a helicopter or an aeroplane, what about actually adorning the human mind and body with a minimal amount of technology and approaching a challenge in that way. And that’s where I then embarked on playing with micro gas turbines as a very small compact system of thrust.
How does the jet suit lift off the ground?
So the way it flies, is that there are two micro gas turbines on each arm and a large one around the back. If you consider the arm jets as being like one large one on each arm, then you’ve got three different thrust vectors. Therefore, thrust is coming out of each arm and one around the back. It’s like a three-legged camera tripod in that way. To take off, simply point your arms down with those thrust vectors, lined up vertically, then the thrust will exceed the weight of the equipment and your body making you lift off the ground. The engines create very rapid expansion of hot gas, which is going out the back end of the engine and passing the turbine wheel. That turbine wheel is spun round and runs the compressor in the front of the engine which compresses the air to go into the engine to increase the violence of the combustion. It’s a nice self-contained system. We used a hyper gas turbine that has a centrifugal compressor rather than an in-line one, which is what you have on a normal jet engine in a modern jet fighter or aircraft.
Essentially you’re in the business of turning air and fuel into hot air in an extremely violent way and blowing it all out of the back of the nozzle. The air leaves the nozzle at about 1,000 miles an hour (around 1,609 kilometres per hour) and each little arm engine that I use, of which I’ve got four, produces about 22 kilograms (49 pounds) of thrust. A crude way of representing this power is that each one of those little engines on my arms is equivalent to about 170 horsepower [the power of a medium-sized car]. Add up all four engines and the one on my back – that comes to a theoretical 1,050 horsepower. That’s even more powerful than a formula one racing car.
How many versions of jet suit were created before reaching the current example?
Gosh, I would say hundreds. It’s not a question of just building one and then trying it, throwing it away and starting with an entirely new one, there is lots of morphing of various different aspects. It’s quite hard to draw a line between different models. But I mean, some of the core steps were achieving the first flight in March 2015 with a little jet engine on each leg and two on each arm. That was a major breakthrough and the very first time we actually flew. Then quite quickly, we realised you had to move the leg engines gradually up your body around to the rear end area, so the engines didn’t destroy the ground too much and were more stable. If you attach jet engines to your legs, it’s like balancing a pool on the palm of your hand, fundamentally hard to balance.
The Times named the jet suit as the best innovation in 2018, what has been the reaction from the public?
I’m the first to admit that I started this entirely out of exploring a challenge that looked impossible and that could be pretty damn exciting. Having got it to work and having then decided to share it with the world under the headline of ‘Gravity’, and the company that we formed, we’ve done 75 events in 23 countries. The effect on audiences all over the world has been remarkable. People lose their minds when they see a thousand horsepower jet suit flying around where the human form is not lost.
What are the next steps for Gravity Industries and future flight suits?
It’s really about a mixture of massive amount of fun. I have to say, I don’t watch Marvel films and think “that’s what I’m going to go and build”. But it is fun to note that science fiction manifests pure human creativity, where you don’t care about physics or money, you just imagine how cool it will be to see something. We’re on a journey to push the boundaries of what’s possible. We are working on an electric version and a winged version as well, which has just smashed our speed record, by hitting 90 kilometres per hour (around 56 miles per hour). So there’s tons going on at the minute, we’ve kind of opened the door to a whole new kind of realm of opportunities.
Your work on the jet suit has led you to write Taking on Gravity. What can people expect from the book?
Aside from what I think are quite blunt, no waffle lessons around how you can properly innovate – I distil down some pretty pertinent rules around how you take controlled risks and manage the downside. Innovating is all about taking controlled risk, being able to get back up again, to keep trying. But it doesn’t work all the time. I’d say there is a pretty strong narrative around that area.
There’s also quite a strong linkage to my kind of unusual childhood, which catapulted me towards this whole boundary-pushing desire. So there’s a mixture of the human story behind this and the innovation journey. And a lot of behind-the-scenes of how you’re not only proving this concept and getting it to fly, but almost a harder challenge of how you build that into something that can be revenue-generating, fuelling the innovation journey beyond.
This article was originally published in How It Works issue 127
For more science and technology articles, pick up the latest copy of How It Works from all good retailers or from our website now. If you have a tablet or smartphone, you can also download the digital version onto your iOS or Android device. To make sure you never miss an issue of How It Works magazine, subscribe today!