During a visit to our London HQ during Guinness World Records Day, Richard Browning, the man behind the jet engine suit which has flown into the record books, sat down to talk about his phenomenal invention.
Reaching a speed of 32.02 mph (51.53 km/h) during a run at Lagoona Park in Reading, UK, Richard set a new Guinness World Records (GWR) title for the Fastest speed in a body controlled jet engine powered suit.
To achieve the record, Richard's speed needed to be measured accurately over a minimum distance of 100 metres. Once it was confirmed, the founder and chief test pilot of British tech company Gravity Industries jetted into history.
To mark his achievements, Richard visited GWR's London HQ to talk about his fantastic achievement.
How long have you been developing the suit?
The journey started around March 2016. Over the summer up until September/October time, we made constant progress. It was evenings and weekends and re-purposing existing technology and learning from failure then we did that first flight where we had an engine on each leg, two on each arm and from there it was refining the system.
Really it was a very short period of time to go from the idea to flying. It’s been very quick.
What’s the highest you’ve flown?
To be honest the record attempt was up there with one of the highest. It doesn’t push off the ground, it doesn’t need the ground to operate. In fact the closer to the ground you are the harder it is to fly because you get lets of turbulence and recirculation from the exhaust. When you’re up high it’s clean, clear lovely air. It’s just if you get a technical problem, you don’t want to be breaking ankles and legs and things. So we don’t tend to go very high, particularly because most of the development took place over hard surfaces and not water. You can go as high and as fast as you like. Over the lake it was quite a gusty day and stability was a challenge with crosswinds and stuff, really for the first three runs I wanted to take it really conservative. We took the brake off on the fourth run and it wasn’t that that put me in the water - but the spirit was more carefree as the run went on.
How tough is it to operate?
I liken it to 1930s Formula One cars, they were insane and you had to physically wrestle those things all over the place because the technology hadn’t really evolved for power steering and power brakes. I say we’re in the same trajectory; because I can handle it, it hasn’t been a huge priority to try and address that. As we go forward we’ll have more support structures that will help make it very easy.
What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced?
In hindsight it looks easy, but it was actually arriving at the layout of engines we’ve got. You look at it now and think ‘that’s obvious’ but it wasn’t. Even as simple as holding your arm out, should you have one here [points to one side of his wrist] or here [points to the other side]? Should you have four engines, three engines? How should they be spread, should they be higher on your arm? There’s an enormous amount of permutations and that was the biggest challenge, arriving and landing on the alignment of engines that would generate stable, controllable, safe thrust because none are pointing at me.
We’ve learned to fly this not with the throttle, it’s all about vectors and where you point them [angle of the rockets]. It’s about balance and body control.
What fitness work do you need to do?
My background is Royal Marines Reserve which teaches you to go to depths of your brain and physicality that you wouldn’t normally go to. Then I got into triathlons and ultra-marathon running which is really good to keep you very light. I can still eat rubbish without getting very heavy! With flying, weight is always a factor. At the same time you need decent all-round strength. So strength in different parts of your shoulder and the calisthenics training (urban gymnastics), which is things like flags and muscle ups. I did that for six/seven years so somewhat accidentally the training has left me light and quite strong for my weight, which is very helpful when it comes to progressing a flying suit.
How powerful is it and where will it go next?
1,050 horsepower. I will admit horsepower is always a bit of a funny thing when it comes to thrust, it’s more than an F1 car and weights 40 kg, it’s insane. The more useful number is the thrust level which is about 155 kg of thrust, so if you point them all in the same direction there’s 155 kg of thrust. Add my weight, that of the kit and fuel and you’ve still got some left over so you still go up.
It’s still taking four litres of fuel a minute. With aerofoils/wings, settle into an airflow then suddenly it’s going to be a lot more efficient. Like a plane has 15% of its weight in thrust. So if it weighs 1000 tons then it needs 150 tons of thrust. A glider you can get away with a tiny amount. I’m running at around 120% of my weight as thrust. If I level off and put all that effort into pushing me horizontally, because of wings keeping me up I’d go so fast so you back off the power and enjoy a longer flight. That’s where we want to get to but it’s going to take a few more steps to get there safely.
Light the engines up, hover, quick systems check, start to accelerate then feel the wings beautifully give you that confident, stable support. Accelerate further to 120 mph, then start pulling up knowing at any stage you have a plan if you have an engine failure, pull up to 200-300 ft and then probably hold a cruise of something like 150 mph which probably sounds like a lot but it’s not compared to a wingsuit.
You should then sit there and burn virtually no fuel, thunder along and covering huge amounts of ground burning much less fuel then start to come down low, transition – this is going to be fascinating, the maths is horrendous to work this out – transition for aerofoil flight into vectored thrust like a Harrier.
What could it be used for?
Part military but from a search and rescue point of view, remember the Italian earthquake. Little villages were cut off and you’ve got three helicopters but how do you get up the road if it’s all gone? If that first response vehicle has equivalent of two 25 kg check-in suitcases you can stack, open the top, step back in and put the suit on, within three minutes be up in the air. There’s no need to go really high, you skim along the ground and land in the village, park the suit and do an immediate triage assessment and give first aid.
We’re building another product which is going to be a flying crate, a huge drone that has extra gas turbine support to live 50 kg of first aid support that comes in behind, lands in the village, dishes it out then moves on. So from a first response, search and rescue point of view I think we’ve got something quite special.
How easy is it to use?
That idea depends on me proving this is as easy as giving someone a bike. I think the interesting challenge would be to get someone who hasn’t learned to ride a bike and someone who hasn’t learned to fly this and at the end of the day prove that it’s about the same speed of learning.
Can anyone else use it?
We get hundreds of people every week getting in touch asking to come and work with us for free. It’ll still be me. As we evolve and learn I want first person data on what’s working and what’s not. Added to that if I tweak something and send some keen 20-year-old in the air and it doesn’t work so they fall and break their collarbone then I’ll feel really bad. If it’s me then it’s my own stupid fault. It’s like when I went swimming on Tuesday [Richard fell into the water after his record-breaking run], I made a mistake and I know what I did wrong and learned from it.
As we refine and boil it down into a known, predictable system then yes, we should have four or five people towards the end of the year starting to learn to fly.