‘Iron Man’ has high hopes for rip-roaring jetpack race series
An English inventor known as ‘‘Wiltshire’s Iron Man’’ is planning to shake up the world of motorsport with a contest inspired by the highflying superhero: an international jetpack racing league.
Richard Browning, 39, is the founder of Gravity Industries, a startup that builds jet-powered flying suits costing £340,000 (NZ$688,000) that can propel a human through the skies at close to 80kmh and would not look out of place in a Marvel comic strip.
Videos of Browning in action as chief test pilot have racked up tens of millions of views online, and he believes that the public wants to see more. He plans to launch a league early next year that will hold jetpack races in Singapore, Hong Kong, London, the Bay Area in San Francisco, Barbados and Dubai.
‘‘Racing and war are the two best ways of advancing a technology,’’ he said. ‘‘We’re going to do the racing bit.’’
He is in talks with a TV broadcaster, and several wealthy individuals were ready to become team principals, he said.
Since Browning founded Gravity last year, he has accepted one investment: US$650,000 from Tim Draper, a Silicon Valley venture capitalist whose previous bets included Tesla and Skype. Draper was likely to back a team, Browning said.
He envisages four jetpack racers competing at a time, navigating a ‘‘three-dimensional air racing circuit’’ over water.
The contest should have the edginess of a contact sport, he added. Flying at an altitude of between nine and 15 metres, participants will jostle for position as they surge for the finish line, he believes.
‘‘Imagine Red Bull air racing meets Formula 1 meets a Marvel superhero film,’’ said Browning, a former oil trader and Royal Marines reservist who developed his jetsuit on his family farm.
‘‘Remember those crazy BMX races in the Olympics, where there’s a crazy amount of frenetic pedalling, people falling over, general chaos? I don’t think we want it quite that mad. But imagine two or three minutes of intense, insane jetsuit racing.’’
Safety measures will include selfdeploying lifejackets for those who ditch into the water.
In a model inspired by Formula 1, he wants several teams to enter two racers each, ‘‘ideally one guy and one girl’’.
Browning was recently asked to present his ideas to a group of technology industry luminaries at Singularity University, a Silicon Valley think tank. He was also invited to a secretive conference on the future of flying machines that included representatives from Google, Uber, Virgin Galactic and Nasa. It was hosted by Steuart Walton, heir to the Walmart fortune.
The latest version of his flying suit is powered by five kerosene-fuelled miniature jet engines, attached to a lightweight exoskeleton, two on each arm and one on the back. Together, they produce 1000 horsepower.
A pilot takes off vertically, and arm movements arms control the direction. A throttle trigger is held in one hand, and a display in the helmet shows the fuel level. The suit can stay airborne for eight minutes.
The contraption was recorded at a record 74kmh at the Bournemouth Air Festival this year, ‘‘without really trying’’, Browning said. Gravity has suggested that it could go much faster.
Nobody is sure of its maximum altitude. Browning does not fly with a parachute and so sticks relatively close to the ground.
‘‘Everything you see in an Iron Man film is almost now becoming pretty possible. The only thing we don’t do is go super-high,’’ he said.
The experience of flying was a ‘‘noisier version of that dream we’ve all had of being free and flying,’’ he added. ‘‘Aside from the ever-present recognition that if you were stupid you could hurt yourself, it’s a wonderfully liberating feeling.’’
Imagine Red Bull air racing meets Formula 1 meets a Marvel superhero film.
English inventor Richard Browning plans to launch a league next year that will hold jetpack races in Singapore, Hong Kong, London, San Francisco, Barbados and Dubai.