Talk to us about your military background and what inspired you to join the military?
I had a place at Sandhurst to become an officer in the army when I was at university however I ended up choosing to go for a commercial career in the end, becoming an oil trader with BP. This decision was somewhat influenced by meeting my now wife at university and I knew that in joining the army I was going to get packed off around the world and not really see her. That said, I also knew I’d really regret not joining the forces; I find the whole ethos deeply inspiring, especially around the special forces and the elite forces, the comradery, the pushing through adversity, the ‘never say die’ kind of attitude and I love the sports endurance side of things as well. I used to do loads of wild rough shooting in the countryside as a kid as well. So, after a couple of years at BP I decided to scratch that itch and join the Royal Marines Reserve in London. Over a couple of years I got my green beret from passing the commando course which is pretty hard work to do alongside a busy day job. I spent 6 years with them, and it was certainly a rewarding experience.
Daring to ask ‘what if’ seems to be what led to starting up Gravity Industries? Was it always intended to be a business proposition or did that evolve from what began as more of a passion point?
There’s an element of ‘that’s just me’. I am one of those annoying people that when presented with a set of rules or an opportunity or anything, I’m always trying to peak behind the scenes and understand what else is possible. I’m not very inspired by just doing what everybody else does, why bother when everybody else is already doing it. I’m always looking for the other thing, the unusual thing and that often leads you into quite eccentric realms because usually the reason that people aren’t doing it is because it’s considered stupid or impossible. And so, I guess to encapsulate that spirit, daring to ask ‘what if’ is the route of many exploratory or entrepreneurial journeys and I love that. I suppose that does encapsulate my spirit to quite an extent.
Did your interest in aviation and engineering come from your father who was an aeronautical engineer?
My late father was an aeronautical engineer, and maverick inventor and designer. He set up his own business as well, it ended in tragic circumstances, but I inherited a lot of his passion for that and that spirit that I mention above. His father was also a civil aviation pilot and before that a wartime pilot veteran. My other grandfather, Sir Basil Blackwell, used to run Westland Helicopters (which has since merged into Leonardo) so yes you could say it was in the blood.
Did you have much experience in engineering before embarking on this journey?
From an engineering point of view, I’m one of those people who has a natural aptitude for making or building things and taking things apart, I used to do a lot of this when I was a kid. I actually started studying engineering at university, but I only did one semester as I found it so boring! At the time I had the place at Sandhurst and I shifted to exploration geology of all things because I found it to be a more hands-on, interesting science. I have to say I just found the focus on textbook mathematics and calculus beat all the excitement and interest out of the subject for me. I’ve got a pretty good understanding, aptitude and a grounding in engineering and physics. You can see from my family background that’s where a lot of that came from as well.
I should also say that I had enough basic knowledge to feel confident to embark on the journey; I knew enough about how gas turbines worked and how flight worked. Strangely, I sort of knew enough about how the human body worked too in the sense that in all my training, from racing triathlon to calisthenics training and all the marines work as well, I had faith that I could adapt and train my body to work with the concept I had in mind. To be clear, that idea was to augment/add to the human body and mind as minimally as was needed in order to enable human flight in the most unusual and novel yet natural way. The idea being to use the brain with balance and control and the body as the flight structure, no seats, sticks, computers or the like.
Describe the feeling when you achieved your first flight using your jet suit technology?
If you watch the original TED talk (link below) back from 2017, I started the journey the previous March and by November 2016 I’d managed to achieve the first flight. You can see from the film clip that it was a sort of wobbly legged crazy thing with an engine on each leg and two on each arm, but it worked. It was just amazing, not only was it a phenomenal feeling but it also represented the culmination of many months of hard work and perseverance in the face of most logic suggesting that this was impossible. It was a mixture of relief, joy and trepidation because having proven it can work it surely deserved properly pursuing. And so, the next big challenge was to work out how to package it and turn it into a bigger, sustained commercial entity ideally that can fuel its own journey. How could we share this in a way that’s inspiring and legitimate? The answer to that ended up being that we launched it with Wired and Red Bull as two brands that could really help catapult it in that desired direction. Watch here http://go.ted.com/richardbrowning.
What have been the biggest challenges you’ve encountered along the way?
Technically the biggest challenge is how do you marry up enough horsepower, enough thrust to get you off the ground but put it in a place where you don’t end up just building a really rubbish helicopter, a big box with a load of engines strapped to it and a seat and a stick or a start button. The idea was to augment the human form so trying to work that out. In hindsight it looks obvious, but we tried so many things as per all the failed videos you can see in the TED talk. That was the first big challenge. The second one was, and I’ve mentioned it already, how do you go and package this up and share it with the world after seeing the enormous impact it garnered when we launched it with Wired and Red Bull which went viral. What exactly is this, is it a new form of human transport, is it entertainment, is it for racing or for the special forces? Answering ‘what is it?’ was quite hard, how could we structure a business around something as new as this.
Where do you see the future of human flight going now and how do you envisage your technology being used in years to come?
There’s a myriad of companies trying to build E-vehicles, electric/drone type lifting vehicles for cargo and people. They will breakthrough at some point and change how we move people around I have no doubt, it’s going to be a hard road because of the rules and legislations to keep us all safe both in the air and on the ground but that will certainly shift things. I think there will always be a soft spot for flight in people’s hearts because I think something deep in humanity looks up at the birds and the skies and contemplates how amazing it would be to not be tied by the bounds of gravity 24/7. Of course, we can experience brief periods of jumping on trampolines or going in aeroplanes and helicopters but actually experiencing that in a truly raw and authentic way is something that I think people will always be really inspired by. I think we can offer a way of accessing that dream and we’ve had over 50 clients now train with us and we’re building a race series, we never seem to have people tire of wanting to come and do this. So, I think minimum we can feed that dream with both the race series and the flight experiences but who knows where else this might lead. The first motorcars were noisy, smelly and inefficient and ended up massively outstripping horses as a way of travelling around so in the same way we might end up evolving our technology to a level we couldn’t imagine now.
The thought of becoming a ‘real life iron man’ would have seemed farfetched not so long ago. Do you have wild ideas now of technology that might seem fanciful today but you aim to make a reality?
I didn’t build this to build an iron man suit, it’s funny how it ended up connecting and resonating with that fictional character. We actually had the whole Marvel CGI team come and see us once because they loved the way we had brought to life what they had imagined in cyberspace as it were which was very flattering and really fun. I don’t know if I can comment on what’s coming next, by definition what’s coming next is always really hard to predict and somewhat unimaginable. It would sound ridiculous if I were to start guessing. What I can guarantee is that the ridiculous things will become real life and I’ve come to have a newfound respect for the whole Comicon/Marvel universe. I was never into superheroes or comics as a kid but if you seek a domain in everyday life that represents pure unbridled human passion and creativity, you needn’t look any further than that world. If you imagine for a moment that you don’t care about money or physics or reality or having to make an economic case for something, you just think ‘it would be really cool if…’ The capacity of humans to persevere towards amazing goals is incredible so who knows, the future’s exciting. Not so long ago the thought of being able to pick up a small piece of plastic and press some buttons to speak to any human being on the planet would have been one such fantasy.
How did you first hear about Bremont?
I first heard about Bremont from Ben Saunders, one of your ambassadors. Ben came to do a talk when I was junior in BP and we hit it off and have kept in touch ever since. I see Ben every now and then and heard about the brand from him, but it’s funny how there are so many connections not least with the military.
What is it about Bremont that resonates with you personally and with Gravity Industries?
I think there’s a shared ethos in many ways, not just the military and aviation heritage side of things but also that innovator/pioneer spirit that certainly I’m very passionate about and that I find deeply inspiring. Nick and Giles really get that, it oozes from the Bremont brand and it’s a great connection.
How have you been keeping sane in this period of lockdown? Have you still been able to fly and has your workshop been open?
I feel a little guilty saying it, but we’ve adapted and overcome the challenges of lockdown. My team has either been furloughed or are working remotely and we’ve done lots of Skype/Zoom calls. I’ve spent a lot of time in the lab and a lot of time pulling out our archival content for YouTube. We’ve managed to progress our R&D frankly faster than we would have done otherwise because we haven’t had all the events which usually serve to hugely distract from this and would mean us focusing on R&D in the winter. For the first month we didn’t get out but then in the last couple of weeks or so we’ve been out at our test site which is a remote location a couple of miles away where social distancing isn’t a problem! We’ve started to test some of the things that we’ve been building which has been really quite exciting to get back out again and we’re slowly gathering some of the team to shoot a few race training clips and things like that. I should also say that my workshop is right next to my house which has been a huge win, without that it would have been more challenging.
THE NEW ALT1-P2 JET: NOW SHIPPING
Bremont is proud to launch its new watch the ALT1-P2 Jet. Based off the original ALT1-P pilot’s watch, the definitive aviation chronograph, the hardened DLC case and black dial of the ALT1-P2 JET combined with Bremont’s iconic ’51 lume’ offers total clarity and legibility to the wearer. Passionate about celebrating British engineering and innovation as part of the testing cycle Bremont has teamed up with veritable aviation pioneers Gravity Industries to test the new watch. This is the first DLC-coated case in this line and turning the watch over reveals a smoked crystal exhibition case back with black rotor continuing the stealthy aesthetic. The ALT1-P2 JET takes a classic pilot’s watch into a new age of aviation.Discover watch