These days, Iron Man is no longer a work of fiction — at least, not entirely.
Richard Browning, an English inventor and entrepreneur, is making waves in aeronautics these days with the invention of Daedalus, a suit that enables the wearer to fly. Powered by six miniature jet engines and controlled via arm movements, this invention (developed through Browning’s company, Gravity) is gaining international corporate interest and changing the future of personal air travel.
We recently spoke with Browning on his career as an inventor, and his visions for Daedalus.
Did you dream of flying as a child? For many people, childhood dreams tend to wane with adulthood; what inspired or influenced you to maintain your curiosity and imagination?
Mankind has been inspired by flight since we began watching birds, but you’re right, you’re right — most adults have seemingly outlandish dreaming beaten out of them. We tell our kids to stop asking silly questions and stick to regurgitation of text books. But if you look outside the text book, persevere, and defy convention, you can taste what it’s like to do something that everyone told you was impossible….and it’s addictive! This has been my experience, and Gravity is just the latest very loud and public example of what can happen when you pursue those early dreams.
What role do you see the suit one day playing in society — do you hope that this will eventually be a mode of transportation for the general public, or do you view this as a niche product?
This was a joy-fuelled exploration into what was supposed to not be possible. We had no thought of commercializing or practical use — we just wanted to prove it could be done! During building and testing, the first thing we realized is that it is a huge amount of fun and, much like a jet ski, there are lots of expensive things in life that are there purely for fun.
Beyond that, we now have serious collaboration with organizations very interested in short-hop search and rescue, CASEVAC, and of course the UK and US militaries. We also plan a pylon race and display team to bring the outrageous live experience to millions of people around the world.
The suit offers possible implications for personal mobility. Do you see a future for your invention in the market of accessibility/mobility aids — i.e., as an alternative to, say, wheelchairs or motorized devices?
It would certainly give people with lower limb damage an unprecedented degree of freedom — but again, only for short and extreme periods, as opposed to being a regular solution.
People are drawing obvious comparisons to your invention and Iron Man. Was the idea to approach human-powered flight via a suit something that came to you immediately after viewing the film?
It honestly wasn’t! We spotted the connection about six months into the journey. When we watched the first film, it suddenly became clear how many parallels there were with our learning and development process, and what you see portrayed in the Tony Stark lab!
We understand that the new addition of a heads-up display was supplied by Sony?
We have tried many different heads-up display systems for fuel and engine data display, as it’s vital to flying the suit — I can’t be looking down at dials or information when I’m in the air. We’re currently using the Daqri holographic heads-up display helmet, which gives me all the data I need to fly successfully with minimal distraction.
You named the suit Daedalus after the Greek inventor — what about his work/legacy made his name the right choice for your invention?
Strangely enough, the younger of my two boys, Thomas (aged 8), is fascinated by ancient myths and hero stories and he came up with the idea. Daedalus was the father of Icarus and a renowned craftsman and innovator, who unlike his son, didn’t fly too close to the sun!
You were a Royal Marine reserve. How did the experience shape you? Was there anything about your time as a reserve that led you down the path of a risk-taking inventor?
It taught me a lot about the power of the human mind and body, and how to delve well past the limits you think you have. That’s been a key plank of the philosophy behind what we have done with Gravity.
You must be very fit to operate the current prototype. How do you plan to make this more suitable for people of various strengths and weaknesses?
You do. I train hard to be able to fly as I do, but plans are already in progress to greatly reduce the effort needed — watch this space!
Your father was an aeronautical engineer who dreamed of being an inventor. What lessons did he leave with you, and how do you think his unrealized ambitions have shaped your own goals?
He was an amazing inventor and innovator, but he struggled to surround himself with the right commercial people. I don’t think he recognized the necessity of having them as part of his team as much as he could have.
He inspired me and taught me to keep that child-like fascination for the world around us — to not be afraid to question and explore. He sadly also taught me how brutal the reality is of turning a great idea into a business, and it cost him his life. I’m aware part of what drives me is to take tough challenges and carry them over the line, deep down in the hope it will make a difference.
What do your kids think about your passion project? Do you think that they’ll one day follow in your footsteps? (Or shall we say, flight path?)
They love it, although have become very used to daddy flying around in a 1000bhp jet engine suit! It’s safe to say they won’t have any trouble or hesitation entertaining unusual ideas as they grow up, and I’m proud to be able to encourage that in them.