It is every boy’s dream to fly like a super hero. That dream has become a reality for Richard Browning, who has a family history in engineering, entrepreneurialism, and innovation. With an extremely respectable CV, he’s served in the Royal Marines, worked as an oil trader for BP, spoken for TED Talks and has set (and broken his own) jet-suit speed Guinness World Record. We caught up with the inventor and founder of Gravity Industries to talk about his incredible journey, jaw-dropping invention and what it feels like to fly like Iron Man!
Richard Browning interview by Ben Farrin
Hi Richard, thanks for speaking with us! I was literally lost for words when I saw the video on LinkedIn of you flying through the air like Iron Man! Can you please explain why you came up with this invention in the first place?
If you Google: TED Talk – Richard Browning, you’ll see the original TED Talk from Vancouver and in seven minutes, you’ll see the visual summary and a fairly nervous talk. That’s 100 talks ago – we’ve done 102 events across 30 countries in three years now. I was very nervous, not because of speaking but because I knew 20 minutes later, I had to do a live demo which was the first demo ever. I knew if I didn’t start or anything like that it would be a massive egg on the face. It turned out that it went great but that gives you the weird background – my (sadly lost at the age of 15) father, was an aeronautical engineer, a maverick inventor and pioneer, and I used to build and make things and break things in his workshop when I was a kid. His father was a military pilot and civil pilot, and my other grandfather was Sir Basil Blackwell who used to run Westland Helicopters (now Leonardo) in the UK. So, you could say it was in the blood. I like crazy challenges. I was in the Royal Marines reserve for six years alongside being an oil trader for BP for 16 years – that gave me the passion for believing that you can really push your mind and body into unusual places if you train for it enough. That’s kind of how I came up with the idea, you know, what if you trained the mind and body to balance and stabilise and take the force of a small form of propulsion. I had this hunch that you could learn to balance and coordinate, and use the brain and the body rather than sitting inside a flight vehicle – you could learn to fly in an unusual way. No practical reason, just for the pure joy and the challenge.
How does it work?
It’s fundamentally using micro gas turbines. Micro jet engines (the same as on a jet fighter or a civil airliner – if you’ve got a technical audience then they are using centrifugal compressors like turbo chargers instead of in-line ones, other than that they are very similar). There are two on each arm and one on the back, and between those five engines it creates the feeling of having three legs of thrust. So, it feels like each arm is just being pushed and like your back is being lifted and pushed. The rear engine lifts the equipment and about a third of your body weight and then you are leaning on your arms, much like leaning forward on a kitchen sink with about two-thirds of your body weight. It’s very easy – it’s less than doing a dip in the gym. You’re just leaning forward like on a table. Then you accelerate the engines, they start pushing, they start lifting, and you just vector them down inwards under you and that rises you up. To land, you flare your arms out again – it’s like resolving the Y component of thrust, if that makes sense? Then to manipulate, move around (you can see that on Instagram with the handle @TakeOnGravity), and all the manoeuvrability is just intuitive, like a bicycle – you just kind of point it to one side and go the other way – you don’t think about it. It’s probably worth saying that it’s a little bit like the Harrier or the F35 in some ways, using vector thrusts as the way of manoeuvring and propelling yourself around.
Are you able to describe the feeling you get whilst flying?
It is hard to describe. It is not too dissimilar to that dream that many of us have of flying – where you are entirely free and liberated from the force of gravity and can just drift around in complete three-dimensional space wherever you like. It is an amazing, amazing feeling. It is the most euphoric, free, crazy thing I have ever done personally, and I have flown quite a few things and raced cars and done all sorts of stuff. It is just the most miraculous kind of other worldly experience. You could also add that it does tap into, (and certainly the eyes of the audiences that we’ve been in front of all over the world, millions of people now, also those people who have done flight training with us), it does seem to tap into that timeless human ambition and dream of human flight.
You’ve stated before that your father was a big inspiration for you. Could you tell us a little bit about him and how he inspired you?
My father – he was this maverick pioneer, inventor, designer, wonderful aeronautical engineer. He was a dreamer and a wonderful creative. Unfortunately, a lot of these ambitious dreams and ideas don’t always come to fruition, and sadly (as I also hinted at in the TED Talk), sadly, sometimes they don’t work out. Unfortunately, his didn’t and he took his own life when I was 15, which was a pretty hard lesson in recognising the downside of all the exuberance that you have to have, to innovate and to be a pioneer. It does not most of the time work out well. That can be the price you pay. So, what we are doing is a sort of celebration of everything he believed in, and in his memory. I’ve done this after a 16-year career in a conventional job and I’m doing this genuinely for the joy and pleasure of what it represents. So, in large part, it is in memory to him.
It seems like technology from movies, such as the Iron Man suit, often do inspire real world innovation. What’s something you’ve seen in a movie that you would love to have in the real world?
I wouldn’t say what I’ve seen in a film is what has inspired me, if I could tweak your question – I’d say, I’ve come to learn as a default sceptical Brit that actually the world of science fiction and comic-con for instance actually, shouldn’t be dismissed as sort of childish, (which I think is the temptation when you are older), and not from California (laughs). I think it actually represents pure human creativity, ambition and spirit, where you don’t care for a moment about physics or money. The idea of being able to fly like a super hero, have super hero strength or communicate to anyone in the world with a spaceship flying above you – all these are amazing and half the things I have just listed, we can now do. It is a source of pure inspiration I think, so I didn’t design this to build an Iron Man suit but it certainly does look a little bit like it and it is a connection that a lot of people draw, and it is wonderful and very flattering. But I think that world does contain the inspiration for a lot of things that we’ll go on and build and create as human beings.
Were you aiming to set a world record from day one, or was this an opportunity which presented itself later?
Back in 2018, they approached us and said “we love what you do – how about setting a speed record and make it one of the big activations for Guinness World Record Day?” So, we set 32mph and it was the first time I had even tried. Wind the clock forward to 2019, last year and they said “do you want to have another run at it?” (for the same Guinness World Record Day), and we thought yep, this is good timing to see how things have progressed and using our leg wing we set 85mph and that was pretty epic. Yeah, it was just another nice way of publicly measuring our ongoing and pretty rapid advancement from a technology point of view.
What’s the main 3 focus points for you?
The focus is the race series, below that client training – some people then graduate onto joining the race series, and also military activity alongside that – those 3 buckets really.
What advice would you give to inventors and entrepreneurs out there?
If you see the first TED Talk, it’s very much about learning from failure. Entrepreneurialism is all about trying to do something that’s not been done before – you just got to make sure that the inevitable relentless failures don’t sink you, either from a safety point of view, a financial point of view, or a reputation point of view. That’s our lens really – we take risk but we just make sure that the down side of that risk is manageable.
For more information on Richard Browning and his Iron Man like jet-pack invention / company, visit: https://gravity.co
GravityIndustries on YouTube.
Main Image Credit: Rich Cooper Photography.