Reimagining human flight

Richard Browning turned the futuristic concept of jetpacks into reality, unpicking decades of scientific thinking.

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Cherry Reynard
Published: 26 Nov 2021 Updated: 13 Apr 2023
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Richard Browning, founder of Gravity Industries, turned the futuristic concept of jet packs into reality, unpicking decades of scientific thinking.

The desire for human flight has been around since the legend of Icarus was created.

But it has gone largely unrealised. Jet packs have existed since the 1960s, but the fuel-to-weight ratio meant they could only fly for seconds at a time. They were a plaything for action movies rather than a serious technology.

However, in September 2020, they became front-page news, when a Jet Suit from Gravity Industries staged a trial rescue in the Lake District. The pilot was seen flying over hills and ravines to ‘rescue’ an injured walker. A journey that would have taken hours on foot took just minutes in the Jet Suit. They took one step closer to becoming a reality.

This astonishing step is down to the tireless commitment of Richard Browning, founder and Chief Test Pilot of Gravity Industries. He was undeterred by those who suggested it wasn’t possible: that humans would never be able to carry enough fuel, or the heat would be unmanageable or that rotational forces would rip the pilot’s arms off.

While working his day job at BP, he spent his spare time experimenting, with the aim of ‘reimagining human flight with an elegant partnership between mind, body and machine, exploiting leading edge technology’. The reality was more prosaic. He spent a long time wrestling with ways to resolve the fuel-to-weight ratio. In March 2016, he was running secret tests at a farmyard near his UK home in Salisbury, Wilshire. He had a jet attached to one arm, before adding more engines.

He says: “We kept experimenting, failing mostly – mainly by falling over – and learning.”

If it sounds easy, he is clear that it wasn’t. He was unpicking decades of scientific thinking on what was possible and not possible. He had no idea whether it would work and has always been very focused on safety - all of the experimentation's during the development of the suit were done with this in mind.

However, by 2017, he had a prototype and was ready to show it to Silicon Valley investors. He secured backing from Tim and Adam Draper. Tim had a rich pedigree in spotting innovative ideas in their early stages. He had made investments in Chinese search group Baidu, Skype and electric car makers, Tesla.

The group has grown significantly since then. The Jet Suit can now perform speeds in excess of 80 mph and is technically capable of reaching an altitude of 12,000 feet (although for safety purposes it is flown much lower). People can experience it for themselves on the Goodwood Estate, Chichester and in Camarillo, Los Angeles, albeit with a safety tether. There is even a Gravity Flight Club. Gravity Industries is now 30-strong, including engineers and pilots.

Richard estimates that around two billion people have experienced its products globally to date, with video views alone running at more than 60 million within seven days of launch. In the last three years, Gravity Industries executed over 100 flight events across 30 countries.

In the meantime, Gravity Industries continues to develop the Jet Suit. At this year’s ‘Future Lab’ at the Goodwood Festival of Speed, it presented its new eSuit concept – the world’s first electric Jet Suit. The Suit is made from carbon fibre, aluminium and 3D printed polypropylene, designed to achieve great strength and minimal weight – and delivers 150 kg of thrust. It’s early days, says Richard, but the technology is evolving quickly.

The suits are currently available at Selfridges, though at $440,000, the market for them is relatively small. Ultimately, there are multiple uses for the Jet Suits, including military and medical options, as the technology advances and costs fall. Richard spent seven years in the Royal Marines and the Jet Suits have already been used in numerous tactical exercises with the Royal Navy.

In the meantime, Richard hopes to create a Grand Prix race series between privately owned teams licensing his Jet Suits. This will almost certainly take place over water. He’s opened a training facility at the Goodwood Estate to train more pilots for the suits.

For Richard, this builds on a long family heritage. His grandfather was Sir Basil Blackwell, a former CEO of Westland Helicopters while his father was an aeronautical engineer and a serial inventor. He knew how jet engines worked from the age of ten and spent his school holidays building gliders from balsa wood. While he flirted with a corporate career, it seems his path was set from an early age. His extraordinary dedication has brought human flight a step closer.

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This article was previously published on Smith & Williamson prior to the launch of Evelyn Partners.