Rocket vs. hover: the battle of the skies
ON December 17, 1903, Orville Wright piloted ‘The Flyer’ - the Wright Brothers first powered plane - for a distance of 20 feet over the wind-swept beach at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.
Since that day, brave and intrepid inventors and daredevils have been inventing new ways for humanity to defy the shackles of gravity.
One of the most exciting ideas that captures the imagination is the concept of a jet pack - a personal rocket propulsion system that is small and light enough that it enables the wearer to walk around on the ground before taking off.
Marvel’s Iron Man - a long time comic book hero and now a major motion picture franchise starring Robert Downey Junior - captures this idea perfectly (and throws in a cool suit of armour for good measure).
It’s no great surprise that Iron Man has been, at least in part, the inspiration for many an inventor intent on developing a cool gadget or gizmo.
But now we have a real life Iron Man to look to for inspiration.
In the summer of 2016, Richard Browning, of Wiltshire, England, strapped a kerosene fuelled micro gas-turbine to each of his arms and legs, pressed the throttle trigger and enjoyed a few glorious moments of flight.
“That was the very first moment we properly proved this would work,” he told WIRED. “That was it. You could get away with it.”
In footage reminiscent of the first Iron Man film’s test flight sequences (painful landings included) you can watch Browning, 38, test out his real life jet-pack.
The current version of his jet pack has six engines, two on each arm, and two mounted near his lower back.
Ten months into testing, and it’s apparent Browning’s hard work has paid off, with him recording flights of up to 12 minutes.
“We’re a long way away at the moment,” Browning told WIRED. “But one day you’ll literally be able to walk around in your garden, take off, fly about, then come down low and land.
“The way you have to balance is pretty much the same stance Tony Stark has in the film. When [Stark] first builds this thing in his lab, he goes crashing around bashing into his cars. The animators who did all that in CGI obviously did some pretty big thinking. It was kind of a funny moment when we realised we should have just watched the film and done that homework.”
But Browning needs to be careful, as he’s not the only person to be inspired by comic book figures in order to create personal flying machines.
French inventor Franky Zapata has created the Flyboard® Air, a hoverboard that bears an eerie (yet awesome) resemblance to Spider-man’s arch nemesis - ‘The Green Goblin’.
Zapata’s fantastic flying machine is, at this point in time, considerably more impressive both in terms of its design and ability.
Able to reach speeds of 150 km/ h and flight distances of 10,000 feet, the Flyboard® Air is quite a sight to behold and was recently showcased at the Flyboard World Cup in Florida.
“( The Flyboard® Air) uses a logic system inside the board that helps stabilise the machine. It’s extremely hard to stabilise...for example, we use like the same kind of electronics like you use on a drone to stabilise. The problem is to create the algorithms, the right algorithms, to combine the intelligence in the board and in your brain.”
So with two inventors racing to create personal flying machines, each inspired by superheroes and supervillains respectively, there’s only two questions on my mind.
Will they battle for total mastery of the skies in an epic showdown?
And can someone please make that happen?
SUPERHEROES: Franky Zapata (left) and Richard Browning (right) equipped with their high-tech personal flying gear - the ‘Flyboard® Air’ and the ‘Daedalus’.