Oil trader’s Iron Man-style jet suit blasts onto big business
Richard Browning has turned an unusual DIY project into a money-making opportunity
In March 2016, former BP oil trader Richard Browning started a new DIY project. That’s not unusual for men rapidly approaching their forties, but while most might decide to remodel their bathroom or build a shed, Browning decided to go one better.
The father of two spent his evenings and weekends scouring Amazon and eBay for spare parts to build what he describes as a “jet suit”.
It took him months before he had his final design and eventually strapped six powerful gas turbine engines to his arms and legs and flew through the air like the superhero Iron Man.
Three years later, Browning has hit 40, and raised investment from one of Silicon Valley’s most prominent venture capitalists for his start-up, Gravity Industries. He also has an inbox full of requests from some of the world’s wealthiest people who are looking to get their hands on their own jet suits, which can cost up to $440,000 (R6.3m).
But Browning isn’t especially keen on selling his suits just yet. Instead, he’s more concerned with how to build a business around his invention.
Ask Browning about what part of his invention he’s most excited about, and it isn’t the speed at which his jet suits can fly, or the amount of money he’s made. It’s the emotional impact that he says it has on people. “I hate recounting this unless I’m talking to an American, because they’re much more receptive of this,” he says. “I just thought: ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if it worked?’ And we’re trying to keep that passion and spirit of joy still at the core of everything.”
Browning doesn’t have the typical background of a jet suit test pilot. He graduated from the University of Cardiff with a degree in geology in 2001 before joining BP as a commodities trader. In his 16-year career at BP, he focused on oil trading, specifically crude oil, gasoline components and petrochemicals. He’s also been a Royal Marines reservist, and lives on a farm in Wiltshire with his wife and two sons, who are 10 and 12. But engineering is in the Browning family’s blood, and the ambitious project to build a jet suit was a work of passion for the oil trader.
His father, Michael Browning, was an engineer and inventor who killed himself when his son was just 15. So when Browning came to devote his spare time to his jet suit, it was more than just a hobby.
By the autumn of 2016 he had managed to clumsily hover around his fields with his engines. He scrapped the original design that used leg turbines, which he now calls “ludicrous”, and switched to a larger engine mounted on his back, along with two turbines mounted to each of his arms.
There are several things that strike you when watching Browning fly in his jet suit. The first is the sheer absurdity of seeing a commodities trader hover around a car park wearing something that looks like it’s been stolen from the props department of an Avengers film. Then there’s the noise of the gas turbines he uses to float, and the heat that they give off.
Business taking off
Browning is now working on turning his invention into a business. “Having achieved it and done it frankly more successfully than I dared think we’d get to, then obviously the challenge became, well, what do we do with it?” he says.
So far, the inventor has sold two jet suits. A prototype was sold to an anonymous Japanese billionaire for $250,000, Browning says. In 2018, he sold one to an entrepreneur in New York for $440,000. “We had our arm twisted by a Japanese gentleman who was just desperate to buy one,” he explains. I said: ‘Please wait because we’re going to have a better version.’ And he said: ‘No, no.’ He was adamant.”
Nine jet suits are now available for sale through Selfridges for £340,000 (about R6.4m) each. None have sold yet. Browning doesn’t plan to start scaling up his retail ambition any time soon. “We have to be very careful with this,” he says. “It is not our core model to be just trying to make these as cheap as possible and handing them out.”
To fly in one of the suits, customers have to be trained in a hangar that Browning has equipped to give support as they attempt to handle the thrust of the turbines. “It’s a bit like the highest end Ferraris. You have to be on a list, you have to be personally phoned up by Ferrari for you to give them your money.”
Browning says he has received 250 e-mails from potential customers in the past 10 days alone. It would be relatively straightforward for Gravity to reduce the cost of the suits and to start selling them to more people. But Browning cites the state of the drone industry as an example of what he doesn’t want to happen to jet suits.
“It was all very friendly and lovely and a few professionals would fly them around,” he says. “Then they became so cheap that everybody had them and they got abused and now there are ever-increasing rules on who can fly them.”
For many months, the ambitious inventor toured the world with his jet suits, performing demonstrations at schools and conferences as long as they paid his travel expenses. These events helped to promote Gravity, introducing Browning to celebrities such as Tom Cruise. “He loves this stuff,” Browning says. “I know him, and we talk to him a lot.”
Browning has also picked up investment from Tim Draper, one of Silicon Valley’s most prominent venture capitalists, and his son Adam. The older Draper is well known for making audacious bets on futuristic technology, including buying tens of thousands of Bitcoin, and investing in blood-testing start-up Theranos, which collapsed following a scandal over the accuracy of its tests.
Adam e-mailed Browning after seeing a video of his jet suit in action. “The guy had an Iron Man GIF in the bottom of his e-mail signature where he was smiling away, taking this mask on and off repeatedly,” Browning says. “I thought: ‘You know what, he’s either completely bonkers or he might be quite fun’.”
Browning flew to San Francisco and gave the first public demonstration of his jet suit in a car park for the investors. “Tim and Adam rushed up to me and just lost their minds,” Browning recalls. The pair offered Browning $500,000 for 10% of his business. He haggled them up to £500,000 while his jet suit’s engines cooled.
Earlier this month, Gravity was awarded a patent for the suit. The company is continuing to develop the technology, though, and Browning talks excitedly of new deployable wings that will allow pilots to accelerate to “vastly higher speeds”. He is now hoping to use his jet suit in a global series of races. “Why not have three or four pilots, all with different, interesting sporting or piloting backgrounds, all with their own social media followings,” Browning suggests. “And get them to assemble over aquatic locations – rivers, coastal regions or lakes. And then hold what will look like a smaller scale but much more intimate and exciting Red Bull Air Race-type event.”
Gravity’s planned races are still in development, however, and for now Browning continues to travel the world to demonstrate his invention. The company charges fees for his appearances, providing a regular income that allows for more development. As we speak on the phone, he is driving to the airport to catch a flight to Chicago for his next appearance. For a man who flies like Iron Man for a living, having the chance to sit on a plane is a welcome change from having five turbines strapped to his body. “When I say I’m going to fly somewhere, I have to qualify that statement now. I’m flying on a sensible aircraft in a few hours’ time,” he says.
– © Telegraph Media Group Limited (2019)