INSIGHT

The sky's the limit

Making dreams take flight

Who hasn't taken a moment to watch brids on the wing and marvel at their beauty, grace and freedom?

Entrepreneur Richard Browning recalls doing so as a boy and, even during subsequent careers as a City commodity trader and a Royal Marine, never quite shook the fantasy of one day gliding through the air, free as a bird.

Now that dream has become a reality. Richard is founder of the British startup Gravity, developers of a jet propulsion flying suit. The ‘Daedalus’ continues to be fine-tuned with financial help from an investor, but Richard has just accepted a deposit from a Japanese customer for the £200,000 prototype – and there are more purchases in the pipeline.

A fascination with flight

Richard says: “It’s amazing something that began as a joy-filled exploration into the impossible is now a serious aeronautical business. Footage of me flying around has had millions of hits online. There is something about the suit and what it does that makes people smile and want to get involved.”

Gravity isn’t the only startup tapping into man’s long-held fascination with flight. Google co-founder Larry Page recently invested in Kitty Hawk, which creates individual flying machines.

Meanwhile pre-sales are already open for Pal-V’s Liberty, an eye-catching hybrid that goes by the slogan, ‘A car that flies, a plane that drives’.

Even aerospace giant Airbus is getting in on the act, with plans to test the Vahana personal mobility flying car by next year.

Tapping into the Zeitgeist

It’s not only flying cars firing the imagination of entrepreneurs and investors.

Amazon bosses are investing heavily in making drone delivery a reality.

Grant Achatz, one of the world’s top chefs, serves edible floating balloons at his Chicago restaurant Alinea, with no shortage of diners willing to pay up to £280 for the privilege.

And Zapata has developed the jet-propelled Flyboard Air that could make Back to the Future fans’ dreams of owning a hoverboard a reality.

Richard understands why so many enthusiasts are interested in businesses based on the concept of flight. But he reckons there’s something crucial about the Daedalus suit that sets it apart from everything else.

He says: “Gravity is about the coming together of mind, body and machine. The starting point was augmenting the human body with a subtle amount of technology. I was always mindful of the fact that the restrictive suits and kit for activities like hang-gliding and wingsuit base-jumping take away from the romance of flying. The Daedalus suit is less cumbersome and allows the user to walk around one minute, then be hovering in the air the next. It’s not far off the dream of simply flapping your arms and taking off.”

Safety pips fun

Richard’s suit uses miniaturised jet-engines, which have no effect if the user stands with their arms in a crucifix position. Lowering the arms towards the ground provides the thrust required to lift the user into the air.

Mastering the intricacies of moving around safely proved difficult at first, but Richard’s excellent general fitness was a big help.

He says: “Being light and strong was an advantage. Doing calisthenics training since being in the Marines helped build my shoulder strength, which is essential to cope with the thrust of the suit. Now I hardly notice the physical exertion at all. I’ve made it to three metres off the ground, but won’t go any further as I don’t want to break my legs. Likewise the fastest I’ve travelled is 35mph. Safety pips having fun.”

A billionaire's jet ski

The next version of the Daedalus is already in development and expected to cost up to £400,000. With interest from all over the world, Richard is confident the flight suit he began to research on a whim will prove a soaring success.

He says: “I would liken the Daedalus to a billionaire’s jet ski. It’s a bit of high-end fun without any practical application. However, I am aware that as technology accelerates, the likelihood is that its applications will broaden – search and rescue perhaps. The exciting thing is we’re right at the start of the journey. We’ve got the Daedalus literally off the ground, and who knows where it will lead?”

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