The electric wingsuits and jetpacks bringing bird-like abilities to humankind
Image credit: BMW
Electric wingsuits and kerosene jetsuits from BMW and Gravity Industries are fast-forwarding evolution, propelled by biomimicry, extreme sports and the meaning of life.
“When I am on the mountain and I watch these jackdaws, these mountain jackdaws... there’s something inside me that really wants to fly like birds,” says Peter Salzmann, professional wingsuit pilot, and the Austrian pioneer behind BMW’s new electric-powered wingsuit.
Salzmann’s bird envy, or avian jealousy complex, is a psychological phenomenon shared by many people today and throughout history. Richard Browning, founder and chief test pilot at Gravity Industries, is one of them. “Birds have always been a deeply inspiring demonstration of a capability that human beings have always aspired to have.”
That urge to be free of gravity’s shackles and explore in three dimensions is perhaps as old as life itself. The first organisms moved left and right, forward and backwards, and up and down within the endless oceans of the primordial Earth.
As evolutionary luck would have it, we emerged with our ‘up and down’ capability severely curtailed, but our feathered friends struck gold. We were blessed though with the biological tools to help close the loop – imagination and intelligence.
Salzmann and BMW have harnessed both over the past three years, culminating in soaring and swooping over the Austrian Alps last summer.
Bird, butterfly, or even Iron Man envy, is one step closer to being reconciled. Though it must be said, there are probably just as many people terrified by the idea.
No terror for Salzmann; he gladly dons the e-wingsuit – consisting of cloth webbing between the legs and underneath the arms, and a pair of electric-powered impellers attached to the chest for extra thrust.
When you jump off a mountain, helicopter, or plane in the suit, rushing air inflates the webbing. The inflated suit takes on the shape of an aerofoil, with lift that helps propel you forward as you fall down – a glide ratio of three metres forward for every one metre down. But with the added thrust and pilot skill, Salzmann managed to gain altitude.
“You can fly up, yes, but not just because of the engines. It’s also training, training, training and good technique,” he tells E&T. “It’s a super cool feeling because you directly feel the influence of it.”
Jumping from a helicopter at 10,000ft, Salzmann reaches speeds of over 180mph, propelled by gravity and carbon impellers operating at 25,000rpm. Lightweight carbon fibre and aluminium means the thrust unit weighs only 12kg, including a 50V lithium battery with a 15kW output.
He was joined by two friends who wore normal wingsuits. “If I switch the engines on then they have no chance to follow me, that’s for sure,” he boasts.
Yet the excitement is short-lived: the battery only lasts “around five minutes”, which admittedly is longer than usual wingsuit flights.
Tom Allemeier, design director at BMW Designworks, explains the technical challenges. “The power unit components and battery were designed to increase gliding time, enable a dynamic upswing after a short descent, and allow the wingsuit pilot to fly further than ever before.
“We had to find the right balance between a capable power unit while minimising weight, taking into account the physical condition and natural limitations of Peter’s body,” adds Allemeier.
Salzmann spent hours testing prototypes in a wind tunnel and conducted 30-40 flights during the three-year collaboration.
Safety considerations were paramount to the design. “We realised at some point that the main load is not the actual flight, but when Peter pulls the parachute – several Gs act on the system,” says Tobias Hoffritz, creative director at BMW Designworks.
Salzmann shares BMW’s safety-conscious ethos, which was key to getting the company on board with the project, conjured up by him more than five years ago.
“I reduce all the risks that are possible to reduce, set them to a minimum, and then there is this last risk, which is always there. You just cannot reduce it. And then you just have to compare it and say, ‘OK I take this little risk compared to all the fun and the joy’,” explains Salzmann.
Sadly, not all extreme sports athletes exhibit his intuition for safety; according to crowdsourced data, there have been over 170 wingsuit deaths since 2002 and Salzmann knew “quite a few people who died” during his earlier years in the extreme sport.
He has performed over 1,000 wingsuit flights in 11 years in the sport and thinks most accidents involve avoidable mistakes. Wingsuiters need to fight against the urge to push beyond what’s safe – for example, not jumping when there is too much side wind.
Tuning in to your emotions is essential. “If I’m afraid, I know something is wrong, and I don’t jump,” he adds.
Salzmann hopes to be jumping before too long in the next iteration of the e-wingsuit, which will have “way more thrust”. Yet it’s unlikely e-wingsuits will be on general sale any time soon.
We’ve come a long way since the first winged humanoids appeared in ancient folklore and 11th-century English monk Eilmer of Malmesbury jumped from a monastery tower with makeshift wings. He was crippled in the process.
Were he alive today he would no doubt be amazed by Salzmann’s achievements and also that of the UK’s own Richard Browning, another pioneer of personal human flight. Browning’s team at Gravity Industries developed and launched their jet-powered flying suit back in 2017.
In contrast to previous jetpack projects such as the Bell Rocket Belt from the 1960s, and Michael Jackson hovering above crowds at Wembley Stadium in 1992, these efforts continue to build momentum.
Five gas turbine jet engines propel the pilot – one larger one on the back and two mini-jet engines on each arm. Together, they generate 1,050bhp and 144kg of thrust producing speeds of 85mph.
The suit is capable of reaching an altitude of 12,000ft, although it’s currently flown close to the ground and over water or grass for safety reasons.
It has a maximum 10-minute flight time, which translates to roughly eight miles horizontal range before refuelling, but most flights are three to four minutes. The suit weighs around 25kg, taking the load to 110kg with the pilot and fuel.
In September 2020, the Great North Air Ambulance Service tested the jetsuit in the Lake District to support mountain search and rescue. In the demonstration, a ‘flying paramedic’ was able to significantly cut response times to injured people in remote places. This followed ‘flying marine’ assault trials with the Royal Navy in 2019.
As well as trialling the suit for practical, niche use cases, entertainment is a prime source of revenue for the company, enabling continued R&D.
The next version of the jetsuit is due for launch in 2021 and Browning confirms it will have “a much faster starting time, heavier lift capability, more fuel capacity, is easier to fly, and yet more compact”.
Browning is also exploring battery electric and hydrogen power, as well as integrating a wing in future versions of the suit.
Wingsuit and jetpack technology could fuse in the future to create a more complete and efficient personal flying capability – jets for vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) and aerodynamic flight for longer periods of horizontal movement.
Also in Gravity Industries’ plans for 2021 is an international jetsuit race series (pandemic pending). The jetsuit has already wowed crowds at over 90 live events over the past three years, and the company claims to have reached over a billion people online. So moving into the extreme sports arena with race events looks like a good bet.
The popularity of extreme sports, such as mountain biking, wingsuiting and paragliding, is ballooning.
The evidence includes increasing sales of air sports equipment (including wingsuits), 20 per cent growth in total annual skydives in the US since 2000, and 7 per cent annual growth predicted for the extreme sport travel insurance market up to 2026 (analysis before Covid).
With lockdowns introducing more people to outdoor recreation, a gateway for some to extreme sports, this trend could accelerate further, although the slowdown in international travel could also change behaviours.
YouTube and other social media have been pivotal in spreading awareness and popularity of extreme sports, with videos such as on-board wingsuit footage going viral and garnering millions of views. The global action camera market rocketed in the 2010s and is predicted to grow by 16.6 per cent each year to £7.3bn by 2026.
So extreme sport is big business and burgeoning. And with that comes investment and R&D opportunities. It is the critical engine of progress for personal flight technology and could lead to a crossover to transport and wider society in the decades ahead.
Space travel had JFK. Personal flight has extreme sports and the viral video. It's quite poetic, in a way, that society is reconnecting with nature through adventure and extreme sports, and this is enabling us to develop bird-like abilities, an example of biomimicry – using nature to inspire innovations.
What psychological drivers, bestowed upon us by evolution, are behind extreme sports? Salzmann rejects the common perception that chasing the next buzz is the motivator: “I don’t like this adrenaline rush word, I’m not this guy who is super pumped after a jump who says ‘Woah, that was like drugs’. It’s about the feeling and like in any other sport it’s the passion which drives you forward.”
Dr Eric Brymer, associate professor at the Australian College Of Applied Psychology, explains that while motivations for trying out extreme sports can include risk-taking, reasons for staying in the sport are much more profound than that. “People describe something that’s similar to mindfulness, being in the present, being free from all sorts of mental chatter: this extraordinary experience where your senses are alive, like you really start to get a glimpse of what it means to be a human being at its best.”
Brymer has studied extreme sports athletes for over 15 years and found that benefits spill over into everyday life, especially for wingsuit pilots.
A new collaborative relationship with nature emerges. “You have to learn how to dance with that environment, how to be at one with that environment, how to interact with the environment,” he says. “The typical idea of man versus nature is just thrown out the window.”
Wingsuiters can also gain a new understanding of the meaning of life and selfhood, as well as transferable skills. The former is brought about by the dangers of extreme sports and facing death. “You see life differently,” explains Brymer, through “this existential realisation that life is finite and that actually you only get one chance on this planet”.
Unfortunately, we have been reminded recently that the dangers of personal flight are very real. Vince Reffet, 36, was killed in an accident while testing Jetman Dubai’s 250mph wearable jetwing in the Dubai desert in November last year.
Reffet joins other fallen pioneers, like those of the space programme, who lost their lives pushing humankind further – to join the birds and insects, as masters of the skies. Yet extreme sports athletes in the main have been dismissed as just adrenaline junkies. Should they instead be revered in the same way as our pioneering astronauts?
While Salzmann pauses flying for a short time after an accident out of respect, he continues with the mission: “Flying is my life,” he says. If Salzmann, Browning and their successors lead us to widespread personal flight in the future, the implications for society are not just practical.
As Professor Robert Bor, aviation psychologist at the Royal Free Hospital, London, puts it, being able to open the door or the window and fly wherever we wish “will change how we think about ourselves, how we think about relationships and maybe even our purpose in life”. We would all gain a new “sense of agency and choice” that would impact every area of our lives.
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