Real-life Iron Man, Richard Browning, tests the boundaries of gravity. The UK-based inventor has thrown away the rule book with his suit powered by six small jet engines. A pioneer of innovation, he has built a suit that enables him to fly. Founder of human propulsion technology start-up, Gravity, Richard has brought his vision into reality. Ahead of his contribution to this year's TED 2017 conference, we chatted with him to find out how the idea started, the dangers of the project and what human flight means for the future. Richard's talk is scheduled for Thursday 27th April, and he is part of the Bugs and Bodies session, hosted by Chris Anderson.
How did the idea start?
Life has gone pretty mental since we launched, the whole thing is going global. I am jetting across the world the next few days and weeks to secure the second round of investment and excitingly I will be at the TED 2017 conference in Vancouver this month, I will be flying in the suit in front of a huge audience – a very thrilling and daunting prospect!
But to take a few steps back, I have a 15-year history of working for BP, both trading and exploring new prospects for them. I am always one to push boundaries and ask questions, so I am constantly on the lookout for new windows of opportunity. Alongside my work at BP, I also founded a ship tracking business. Following this, I was involved with a data analytics company in Poland, which also worked out as a success, so I was inadvertently collecting the experiences and key drivers for what works in this world.
Richard in the suit
I could see BP were going to become the next Kodak unless they innovated, so they kindly allowed me to give up trading and become their innovation evangelist.
So, that gives you a potted history of how my work life fitted into the story, but to go back further, the idea can be traced back to a conversation I had about 18 months ago. A group of friends and I were thinking about the idea of flight, if you employed the human body in a certain way, you can achieve great things. The conversation circled around the idea that if you link major muscle groups in the body with structure around the human body for the wingspan, you might be able to achieve flight. So it turns out an Oxford University research group are already working on this idea – so we pivoted this idea and delved deeper into the knowledge that we needed a power source, so we turned to gas turbines.
From here we essentially bought one engine, tested it and just evolved the product onwards. Trying different methods and falling over a lot, we continued to adapt the technology and develop as we went.
"Trying different methods and falling over a lot, we continued to adapt the technology and develop as we went."
It seems that you are a real champion of innovation. How do you think your project plays into this?
Part of the value, for me, is holding up projects and showing people that they can achieve if they pioneer a vision and get people excited about it. I think if you have an idea you need to just get out and do it, this project shows that I walked that walk myself, in a powerful way. We need to be willing to not accept the status quo, and not be afraid to follow through with a vision. I think you can learn most quickly this way, and we can innovate most quickly this way, if we sit thinking about things, technology will surpass us.
Were you worried about the dangers of the new technology?
They are phenomenal pieces of kit to be around, but the suit is actually less dangerous than a motorbike, the engines are very hot, but you just have to make sure you don’t go near that. They push hard on your body when you have them on, but with some strength training, it is entirely manageable to control them. What is potentially more exciting and dangerous, is that there is no manual for this, so I have to learn how to balance and fly as I am going along.
What kind of response have you received and what does it mean for the future?
Well, it will certainly be a while before everyone is going to Tesco in these suits, but the upcoming talks, Red Bull promotion and the growth of the brand all mean the project will continue to grow in an exciting way. We did this for the journey and the challenge of it all, we wanted to achieve something that wasn’t possible and I think we have definitely done that.
"It will certainly be a while before everyone is going to Tesco in these suits"
We have a whole bunch of activity coming up! We’ve got the second-round investment, our continued development of the Gravity brand and other people interested in building their own versions of the suit. We have people who want to develop a real-life version of Tony Stark’s lab from the Iron Man film series, it will be a place where you can go to get your own personal suit fitted, fitness instructors will help you through the training process and we will develop the technology to meet your own personal needs – the idea is that the whole thing is an immersive experience.
We are also looking to develop the suit with VR enhancements and make follow-on products like electric versions for kids.
It all sounds fantastic and like things are really taking off (no pun intended). So, from your experiences what lessons can audiences take from you?
I want to get people’s attention, and I feel like I have with this project. The overall idea is that if you have that vision, however big or small, just go out there and make it happen. Collaborate with people, learn as much as you can and don’t be afraid to fall over. It is about the journey, find your dream, make it big and chase it down, keep testing, travelling and learning.