‘Iron Man’ has high hopes for rip-roar­ing jet­pack race se­ries

Sunday Star-Times - - WORLD - AP, Wash­ing­ton Post The Times

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.

YOUTUBE

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.

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