If you haven’t heard of Richard Browning, you’re about to. In summer last year, he uploaded a short video of the project he’d been working on for almost two years – an attempt to revolutionise human-powered flight. In it, he hovers half a metre off the ground via kerosene-fuelled micro gas turbines – basically, small plane engines, attached to each limb. Now, he’s flying faster and higher, giving TED talks and working on the problem of making hundred-mile-an-hour engine flameouts survivable, while wrangling a company that’s become a multi-million dollar project. He’s the real-life Tony Stark in more ways than one – he’s also working on a way to provide ultra-efficient solar energy to African schools – and he owes it all to an unusual combination of scientific thinking, willingness to take risk, a strategic approach to funding his dreams, and above-average physical fitness. RISING spoke to him to learn his five rules for anyone trying to supercharge their own efforts.
1. Make Failures Survivable – Financially and Physically
‘I’ve gone over 35mph in the gear, two or three metres above the ground. In terms of the technology we’ve got at the moment, it absolutely could go thousands of feet, at hundreds of miles an hour. Going above 10ft, it gets vastly easier to fly: there’s a public perception that you’re pushing off the ground, but it’s actually difficult to fly low because you get a lot of turbulence. You go higher: nothing, it’s beautiful. Clean, lovely cold air. But if I go much higher without any safety procedures I’m just gambling that I won’t have an engine problem.
‘Have a big vision, but pursue it in a way that you’re not going to lose the house if it fails’
‘One of our ongoing problems is: how do you make the gap from 10ft to 150ft survivable? Because there’s no prizes for breaking your legs in the experimentation. Right now, the only go-to survivability tech is a parachute, which only really becomes survivable at 150ft – but we’re working on other options.
‘My father, who was an inventor himself, took his own life when I was 15, which was a very hard lesson in: yes, you can have all these ideas, but actually monetising them… It’s a bit like startup success, the probability is pretty poor. You’ve got to make your failed attempts survivable. That’s why I knuckled down and did a well-paid, sensible job for 15 years. About two years ago as my financial security improved, so I started thinking about other ideas. Have a big vision, get the hell out there and pursue it in a way that you’re not going to lose the house if it fails.’
2. Combine Your Unusual Skills – Like Calisthenics And Aeronautics
‘The starting point for the project really was a marriage of my own heritage: my father was an eccentric aeronautical engineer, and I had a childhood of making, building and breaking things in my dad’s workshop. I’ve also done ultramarathons and triathlons, and seven years of calisthenics, so I ended up marrying that interest in flight and power and aeronautics with my fascination with the capabilities of the human form, mind and body.
‘I had this feeling: why couldn’t you approach the challenge of human flight in a different way, by augmenting the amazing machine that is the human mind and body with just the right technology in order to fly? That’s a subtly different challenge from building a flying machine and putting a human in it – making a helicopter where you’ve got a seat and a load of controls and whatever. Why don’t you use your body as the flight structure and use your brain as the gyro?’
‘The inclination to go “Ah, fuck it, let’s give it a go,” is probably the most important quality’
‘When you do calisthenics with human flags and muscle-ups you get a pretty deep respect for just how strong and capable the human body can be. If you can support your own weight on your fingertips in a planche, then why can’t you support your bodyweight as a wing structure in flight?
‘Calisthenics gives you pretty extreme strength without bulking you up. It also gives you this multi-dimensional strength in your joints: if you can crouch down and come up into a handstand and then do handstand press-ups, you’ve got a lot of strength. If you’re going to learn to wrestle 130kg of jet engine thrust and handle falls, it’s quite handy to have no injury-prone imbalances in your shoulders and core.
‘The whole project’s required an unusual combination of perspectives: someone who’s kind of light, strong, has a rock climbing and calisthenics background, and then someone who has a reasonably good understanding of how jet engines and engineering and physics work, and then having the financial position to be able to blow some money on the hardware. And above all that there has to be this inclination to go “Ah, fuck it, let’s give it a go,” which is probably the most important quality you can have.’
3. Building A Top Team Is Easier Than Learning Everything Yourself
‘I’m a practical builder and creator, but I’m also pretty good at finding and motivating and enrolling the skillsets I need to move things along. The biggest skill I needed about four months into the project was software engineering, because the gas turbines quite quickly required a better way of me controlling them – so I enrolled a local software engineering team who were quite enthusiastic.
‘Now I’ve got polyurethane fuel tank expertise, radio frequency and welding expertise, CAD design expertise, 3D printing expertise, software engineering, gas turbine and aerodynamics experts, impact analysis and shock absorption specialists, solid fuel rocket expertise: there’s no way you can be best in class at all of these things, but you can have enough ingenuity to see what the opportunity is, find those people and enroll them, then go and scale from there.’
4. Take The First Step To Make Your Dream A Reality This Afternoon
‘It’s easy to reside in the realm of talking about grand ideas but it being hard to get on with it. But I think the key skill to get on with it is holding in your mind the grand vision of where this can go, and being inspired and excited by that, but also just getting it right down to what you’re going to do this afternoon.
‘Not next month or tomorrow, but what are you going to do this afternoon? That could be: go on Amazon and buy some stock aluminium tubes, one of which is the right size to put your arm into, the other of which is the right size to put a jet engine in. Even though you haven’t bought the jet engine yet, you can angle grind those together and make the mount for your engine.
‘That’s a real example, because you’ll learn from that: you start drilling holes in the aluminium and go “Oh, you know what, that’s not so bad, that’s pretty light.” When I do the fag packet maths on my weight versus thrust, it doesn’t take that much. It’s not sitting with a pad and paper and listing action items, it’s actually going and doing action item number one. Ask yourself: what can you do that’s a small step that gets you started, that makes you psychologically believe that you’re going to start this journey?’
5. Enjoy Your Dream First – The Cash Comes Later
‘I’d encapsulate the whole project this way: this was a joy-fuelled, completely non-commercial exploration into what was possible, and now it’s grown up into the Gravity brand where we own the patents on all the technology. It’s a serious aeronautical innovation business that’s seeking to take human flight to a whole new level.
‘I’m loving the idea that the Gravity brand and journey can inspire people on that pathway; whether it’s getting people off the couch to do a Parkrun or get them to try to be the next Elon Musk, that’s a core part of what we’re trying to do. Even if people are telling you it’s not going to work, by definition every idea that’s going to change the world looks like it will be ridiculous or impossible. Do the small steps, learn by doing, and learn from the problems you encounter.’
WHAT NEXT? Check out more of Richard’s test runs at www.gravity.co, then see if you’re capable of flight with Browning’s calisthenics test, on Olympic Rings not too far off the ground. ‘Gymnastic rings are a good proxy. Hold yourself with straight arms on those and be comfortable opening your arms out a foot outward away from your sides leaning forward and backward. It all comes down to the body weight you are supporting and how conditioned your shoulders and core are.’