I flew, ever so briefly, with a jet suit

·Bureau Chief, UK
·10 min read

There were some rules before I even arrived to test out Gravity Industries’ jetpack: Don’t wear sportswear fabrics as they could set alight, come with “robust footwear” and ensure your ankles are covered. No loose jewelry. Sign this waiver form. Don’t weigh more than 210 pounds. I was close to failing that last requirement after a year of pandemic and not much moving.

But I passed and after a brief series of elbow-bump greetings, I was soon being strapped into a hefty backpack that housed the main jet thruster and gasoline. Two engineers slipped two hefty jet outlets, also connected to the gear on my back, onto my wrists. It all felt heavy and I was now a little scared.

They guided me up onto the stage, and the crew, most of which pull double-duty as both test pilots and engineers, set up a stand to rest the arm jets on, before explaining how to control the jetpack. While the rear rocket seems tasked chiefly with getting your body off the ground, controlling the arm rockets —and keeping your own arms rigid — is what moves you, stabilizes you and generally stops you from spiraling out of control in front of a crowd of intrigued onlookers.

Gravity Industries at the Festival of Speed 2021
Gravity Industries at the Festival of Speed 2021

As part of BP’s Future Lab at the Goodwood Festival of Speed, a long-running car show held in one of the leafier parts of southern England, Gravity Industries was showing off its latest jetpack to spectators and letting the occasional journalist and VIP, including Olympic athletes, influencers and musicians take to the air.. for a few seconds.

While we’ve written about Gravity Industries and its founder Richard Browning a few times, covering world record attempts and other experiments. All of these demanded the same miniature jet engines Browning’s been refining for years. And gasoline.

Stood on stage, with the two arm jets resting on a frame in front of me, the team finishes teaching me the fundamentals of movement: Use your right-hand trigger to adjust thrust, spread uniformly across the three jets; raise your hands to go back, bring them behind you to go forward; raise just one to rotate in that direction. Someone tapped my back and I realized I was now attached to a safety wire that ran across the very top of the stage.

And that was it. An engineer put a pair of ear protectors on me — I had a big heavy engine on each wrist — and withdrew to a safe distance. Then the engines kicked in, and I immediately realized why I had ear protectors.

These engines can roar. Collectively, they have enough power to lift up to 210 pounds, but the Gravity Industries team gently increased the engine power, meaning I could literally find my feet, moonhopping from side to side, feeling the effects of different angles on the arm thrusters.

Gravity Industries jetpack
Gravity Industries jetpack

Keeping my arms straight not only kept these roaring engines away from me, but made it easy to stay rigid and adjust the shape of my body. Finally, my brief dalliance with gymnastic rings was paying off. As the power was stepped up, Browning (who was apparently commentating on my efforts to a crowd of spectators — I couldn’t hear him) flagged me and I powered down the motors. I hadn’t quite gotten off the ground for more than a few seconds at a time. He explained that I could guide where I went by looking (and turning my head) in that direction, like how you control the direction of your snowboard. I followed his hand as he walked from one side of the stage to the other, and the jetsuit was doing what I wanted it to.

Gravity Industries’ jetsuit is designed so that intuition kicks in pretty soon. We naturally raise our hands when we fall. Feel like you’re falling here, and the same gesture will keep you upright. At the same time, intuition can also mess you up. With a powerful engine strapped to your back, pointing at the floor, you should not kick your legs back. Or flail them when you panic. The stream isn’t going to flambé your legs, but you’ll feel a wave of heat that doesn’t exactly help to calm you down.

After the flailing, I’d run out of fuel, and it was time for a refill. Once topped up, and with a little more confidence, I stepped onto the stage. The engineers cranked up the power a little bit more, and I tried to hold my nerve. The engines were roaring louder than ever, and I managed to finally lift myself off the stage. I turned, I wobbled, I moved backwards, forwards and landed when I felt like landing. Did I feel like I was six feet off the ground? Yes. Was it really only a foot and change? Yes.

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Earlier this month, on Independence Day, Mark Zuckerberg published a video of him atop an electric surfboard — if not jetpack — holding the United States flag as he was propelled across the water’s surface. The very, very weird clip raises the question with a lot of these bleeding-edge transport concepts: are they simply play-things of the rich-and-famous?

Gravity Industries, as well as US rivals like Jetpack Aviation offer “experience days” for groups that include training with the jetsuit and a tour of the company’s research facilities. These cost a few thousand dollars. You can also register for dedicated flight training, which is even more money. Tapping into enthusiastic early adopters does offer the funding needed to evolve these projects, and fuel is expensive — so are these jetsuits. But beyond day trips for the rich and showing off the suit to Tom Cruise, what are they for?

The immediate example might be military uses. The military is often the first to adopt new technologies, willingly funding many innovations that have dripped down to civilian life. Browning mentions how helicopters once subverted military strategy when first introduced, with the ability to drop off fully-equipped soldiers into packed jungles changing the assumptions of modern warfare.

Jetpacks are, for now, noisy, fuel hungry and vulnerable. But the posit is that they could offer an entirely different paradigm in warfare — one not yet imagined (or perhaps affordable) just yet.

The British Royal Marines have already tested out Gravity Industries’ suit as an alternative to rappelling from helicopters. In the test, one soldier launched from a boat, landed on a larger vessel and lowered the ladder to the rest of his squadron, cutting out the need for a bigger helicopter.

It’s not all warfare, however. In a recent experiment with the UK’s Great North Air Ambulance Service (GNAAS), Browning flew to a simulated casualty in a mountainous area in just 90 seconds, far faster than the 25 minutes it took air ambulance medics to make it on foot. The time reduction could literally save lives, if a solution to the high-cost and learning curve can be found. The suit is also limited by how far it can fly before needing more fuel. It can typically run for around five to 10 minutes, depending on the pilot’s weight and other factors. Like drone deliveries, for now, jetsuits can only offer last-mile movement — and it has to be less than a mile.

Before the pandemic locked down travel pretty much everywhere, Gravity Industries was also mere weeks away from holding its first race event in Bermuda. It would involve two racers flying around a circuit mixed with an obstacle course built over water, competing for the fastest time. It sounds like something out of The Running Man.

I’ve watched most of the clips of Gravity Industries’ YouTube channel, and Browning’s other appearances on TV shows. But seeing someone with skill put the jetsuit through its paces? That’s when I got the appeal of someone flying around that wasn’t me.

Gravity Industries jetpack
Gravity Industries jetpack

He finishes addressing the crowd at Goodwood and drops his mic behind a couple of loudspeakers. He steps to the middle of the stage, no safety line, and blasts upwards about three feet. He glides off the stage to the grass between it and the crowd. He punches the thrust harder, going even higher, and takes a tour around the perimeter of the stage. Blades of grass fly around, the engines roaring so loud that it’s hard for the audience to choose between Instagramming this spectacle or plugging their ears with their fingers. He makes another loop, then gingerly lands, center stage. 

Everyone around claps, passersby ask Gravity Industries staff if there’s any chance of them trying the jetsuit at the show. They’re politely told that the slots are fully booked, and nudged towards the test flight sessions they offer online.

At the event, Gravity Industries also revealed what could be the future of something that’s already a near-future concept: a prototype electric jetpack. It was a surprise, given that Future Lab is sponsored by BP, the multinational oil and gas company, or perhaps that’s exactly why there was a non-fossil fuel project to show off.

This bigger model, with rougher edges, is more prototype than the gasoline models. Following the reveal, Richard Browning tells me that it was really to prove that “we can get someone off the ground.”

The challenges of an electric jetpack make gasoline versions seem easy. Gravity Industries’ electric proof-of-concept weighs twice that of the fuel iteration, yet it can only last for 10 to 15 seconds of “getting one of the lightest team members off the ground,” notes Browning.

Gravity Industries jetpack
Gravity Industries jetpack

The big challenge is the same faced by electric cars, or even smartphones: the limits of lithium batteries. Fortunately, this small company isn’t the only one chasing smaller, lighter, more potent batteries. With electric vehicles now mainstream, the progress in high-capacity batteries will almost certainly continue, if not accelerate.

There’s the design of the electric jetsuit itself, with almost oversized arm funnels in comparison to the gasoline originals. Browning says that the electric version is effectively “blowing with fans” and so to get the thrust necessary, you need more air expelled and bigger fans to do so.

Browning explains that with fuel-powered engines, you benefit from explosively expanding gases — it’s easier to get the thrust needed. With electrics, you have to make all of that thrust yourself. “The bigger the fan you get, the less power needed.” It’s why helicopters have those huge rotor blades. “The smaller you make it, the more work it needs to do and the less efficient it gets,” he added. Still, even at this early stage, an electric setup could work well for training future jetsuit pilots. First-timers like myself were attached to a safety wire above ourselves — this could also be a power tether. For now, though, it’s a glimpse at a possible future for jetpacks — one that doesn’t demand fossil fuels.

Gravity Industries jetpack
Gravity Industries jetpack

Gravity Industries’ jetsuits are exciting, whether you’re in one or watching someone pilot one. They’re also real, with several paths that could offer a more significant impact. It’s hard to tell which one though, which may be why, for now, the company is letting journalists flail in the air rather than signing deals with the US Army. 

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