Monday, April 15, 2024

Actual ‘superheroes’ soar in the inaugural jet suit race on Earth

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In Dubai, they did something really cool recently. Imagine eight people dressed up like Iron Man flying around the city. They weren’t fighting bad guys, though. They were having a race in jet suits. These suits were made by a company called Gravity Industries.

The pilots raced through the city, going up, down, and all around. The race was like no other because it happened in the air, not just on the ground. They flew around a course that was one kilometer long, dodging big inflatable things in the water. The whole race was quick, only lasting about 90 seconds.

The race was kind of wild. Some people got disqualified, others lost control, and one person even ended up in the water. But everyone had a blast, according to Richard Browning, who started Gravity Industries. He hopes this event will make kids dream about creating amazing things in the future.

Imagine strapping the power of a really fast sports car, like a Bugatti Veyron, into a backpack. That’s what Gravity did with their jet suit. It’s made of 3D-printed materials and has five engines— one big one on the back and two small ones on each arm. This suit can lift you off the ground using a mix of polymers, aluminum, and titanium.

To control where you’re going, you just move your arms. Point them down to go up, lift them to the side to go down. The jet suit can use either aviation fuel or diesel and can zoom at speeds up to 136 kilometers per hour (85 miles per hour), which is the fastest that the inventor, Browning, has ever gone.

Of course, like any extreme sport, there’s a risk involved. Gravity says crashing in the jet suit is like falling off a motorcycle. To play it safe, they fly close to the ground, usually over water or grass, to minimize the chances of accidents.

“Doing our thing over water is cool because if something goes wrong, you just end up in the water. It adds some excitement. Fixing the gear can be a bit pricey, but everyone’s okay,” says Browning.

Issa Kalfon, the Gravity guy who trains others and used to do gymnastics, won the showcase. Other British pilots, Paul Jones and Freddie Hay, were next.

Not all pilots are pros like Kalfon. Jet suits aren’t officially recognized in aviation, so no special permissions are needed. But Browning mentions they keep in touch with aviation rule folks like the CAA in the UK and FAA in the US. In 2020, there was a deadly jetpack accident in Dubai, but it wasn’t a Gravity suit.

Ahmed Al Shehhi, an adrenaline lover and regular skydiver, repped the UAE in the race. He’s the only one not from the Gravity team. Al Shehhi tried the jet suit just three weeks before the race, finishing a 12-day training course in the UK. They start with a safety tether system before flying freely.

“If you count all the time he spent with the engines running, it’s probably 25 minutes,” says Browning. “It’s surprising how fast people can get the hang of this.”

The showcase was to flaunt what the tech can do. It’s not just for fun; Gravity is teaming up with industries like search and rescue, medical, and military defense. Browning, a former Royal Marines guy, is making moves. In 2020, the Great North Air Ambulance Service tried the jet suits in the UK’s Lake District, turning a 25-minute hike into a 90-second flight. In 2021, the British Royal Navy and Royal Marines tested them for quickly boarding ships at sea.

“We teach special forces and medical responders to go anywhere, anytime, in any weather, through wire, mud, mines, water—reaching any spot on Earth. They do their job and can also leave on their own,” says Browning.

Other companies are working on improving how people move. JetPack Aviation in California claims to have made the world’s first jetpack, used in TV and movies. Indian startup Absolute Composites is looking into military uses with the country’s army.

From Bulgari to Armani, super fancy homes are becoming popular in Dubai. This showcase is just the start, says Browning. Gravity plans to have a championship in Dubai next year with at least 12 competitors. Browning hopes this will inspire people and cities worldwide about the possibilities of this technology.

“For many in our audience, this feels like science fiction becoming real. Whether it’s ‘The Rocketeer,’ or ‘Ironman,’ or the ‘Jetsons,’ lots of people tell us, ‘I waited for this since my childhood, and you finally made that vision and ambition come true,’ which is pretty cool,” says Browning.


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