September 6, 2017

#6 - The Future of Personal Flight

For more than a century, people have been dreaming of one day being able to build a personal flying machine. But where is the technology at, and when will we all have jetpacks?

For more than a century, people have been dreaming of one day being able to build a personal flying machine. In this episode of Moonshot we meet people working on flying vehicles and jetpacks to see where the technology is headed and when we might be able to fly ourselves everywhere we go.


Moonshot is hosted by Kristofor Lawson (@kristoforlawson) and Andrew Moon (@moonytweets).

Our theme music is by Breakmaster Cylinder.

And our cover artwork is by Andrew Millist.


Richard Browning: I think some people would like to think that I've had this sort of, since childhood kind of desperate urge to build an Iron Man suit, or this desperate urge to fly like a bird or something. No, not really. You know, like any creative or imaginative person, you look at what a bird can do, or you look at the sky, you look at a jet fighter, and it's hard not to be inspired and amazed by what those creations do.

KRIS: I’m Kristofor Lawson,

ANDREW: and I’m Andrew Moon,

KRIS: And this time on Moonshot, we’re taking off into the world of aerial transport - to see just how far away we are from being able to fly everywhere we go.

ANDREW: So sit down and buckle up. We’ve got flying cars, drone transport, and jet packs all up ahead!

Richard Browning: This really started in a very amateur kind of way around February, March 2016. Alongside a day job, I had a 15 year career as a commodity trader alongside spending six years in the royal marines reserve, and also time scaling a start-up as well alongside a day job. So I'm a bit of a glutton for interesting challenges and this particular challenge that inspired me was around human flight, could you imagine a whole new realm of human flight by taking an approach where you would augment the human mind and body with elegant technology, rather than put the human mind and body, the human being, inside a flight machine?

KRIS: Richard Browning is the founder of Gravity, a UK company building a real-life jet-pack. And while jetpacks have notoriously been a thing of the future, Browning is making really good progress. He launched the company in 2016, and the Gravity team achieved their first flight within the year.

Richard Browning: That first six second flight, albeit quite crude, came about pretty quick, because in the intervening months we'd just gone through a ruthless process of learning from trying, and learning from falling over and failing. We'd spent less time, thankfully if I'm really honest, researching the theory of what should work, because I was mindful that by researching the theory you are digesting mostly that is considered to be status quo thinking. You can't really research what's not been done before. So taking that approach, and being very practical, and repurposing existing technology and existing equipment as far as possible just allowed us to make super quick progress.

KRIS: Richard has been posting a lot of his progress videos online… and when you’re watching the clips there’s a very real feeling that this technology is highly experimental. In one of the clips Richard has his arms strapped to a couple of small jet engines and he then turns them on, and you see the immense power of these engines which look like they’re about to knock him over.

Richard Browning: I'd say we were pretty cautious first of all, so I got the very first mark 1 engine mount, which is built like a tank, it's an enormously heavy, armour-plated kind of aluminium thing that's about nine mil thick, and I gingerly, having tested the engine, and gosh, the first time you fire one of these things up, I mean it's ... some of the figures ... I mean, even though it's the size of a biscuit tin and it weighs one point eight kilos, it's putting out 23 kilos of thrust, which is enough to tip a washing machine, but also my first test for it, and the air is exiting at mach one point five, it's about 115, 120 decibels, it's just ... you can feel the air sucking into the front of it, even if you're standing a metre away or so, you can kind of feel the cold air, kind of, going past you on the way into the engine. I mean they are something to behold.

So yes, I had a deep respect when I then made the decision to have a go at holding one of these, but as I say with the very armour plated arm mount it became quite obvious, within a couple of goes, that yes it's very noisy and a big ball of energy but it's highly manageable.

KRIS: What's required from a physical standpoint to be able to fly one of these jet packs?

Richard Browning: I would say that the physical demands are lessening with every iteration that we make now, but certainly in the early days in the R&D phase, it leaned very heavily on my, I guess, lucky break, that was that I'd been doing a lot of ultra marathon running, so I was pretty lean and light, and I'd been doing a lot of this callisthenics training, which is like, flags and muscle ups and you know, rolling up into handstands. But the nice thing is that they don't bulk you up very much, you don't get up with massive muscle-bound weight, you end up with lean strength, but also lean strength in multiple plains.

ANDREW: Richard Browning is hardly the first person to set his mind to building a jetpack _ they’re as much a cultural icon of 'The Future' as they are potential way to get around.

ANDREW: Some of the ideas behind jetpacks go back decades - even as early as the 1920s and 30s. But it wasn’t until the 60s that any real progress began.

ANDREW: There are videos online that show a demonstration of Bell Aircraft’s jetpack - called “Rocket Belt”. Now because of restrictions on the amount of fuel it could carry, it couldn’t get very far, but that didn’t matter. The jetpack had captured the world’s attention.

ANDREW: So much so, that even James Bond got one in 1965, with Sean Connery using a jetpack to escape in Thunderball.

ANDREW: And there’s of course the famous moment in the 1984 Olympics where a jetpack was used to fly across the stadium in the opening ceremony.

KRIS: But when it comes to designing and developing jetpacks - it’s actually a fairly difficult process. Which is why we’re not all currently flying around with one strapped to our back. And if we're looking at modern companies in this space right now - there’s a lot of hype around the ‘Martin Jetpack’ - designed in New Zealand by Glen Martin. It’s big and bulky - and progress on the jetpack has been reallllly slow due to the complexity of making these things, and it's forced many investors to call it quits.

ANDREW: Then there’s US Stuntman Troy Hartman who’s been building his own version of the jetpack. And then you’ve got Astro Teller ...Captain of Alphabet’s Moonshot division - for those following at home, Alphabet is the parent company of Google.

Now he said that jetpacks aren’t on their radar - even after some initial research - because they just aren’t viable when you look at how much distance you get for the cost.

KRIS: But progress with new technologies like Jetpacks doesn’t come without a lot of failure. And even though Gravity is still a young company, that process of experimentation hasn’t stopped Richard from wanting to make his jetpack a reality.

Richard Browning: There's been lots of falls when you know, a metre or so up, but that's partly why I wear all that padded kind of body armour. I managed to plonk myself in the face when I lost an engine in front of German national TV, which just resulted in bleeding a bit on one of their GoPros. That was probably the most dramatic, but it wasn't really much. I've fallen quite heavily before and felt some shock through my collarbone, I do predict that if I have a bad fall at some point it could bust my collarbone or my wrist or my ankle or something. You know, I'd liken this to riding a kind of dirt bike really aggressively over a kind of jumpy, kind of, terrain. You know, if I get one of those jumps wrong or in the case of this system, if I get an unplanned failure or if something fails, I'll fall a metre or two, maybe badly, twist something, or whatever. But really I haven't done any of that, I've fallen all the time from really quite low level. Safety's critical, there's no prize for going and jiggering yourself. The systems got the capability to go hundreds of miles an hour and thousands of feet up in the air, but I'm not going to prove much by going and doing that.

KRIS: Richard’s jetpack suit often reminds people of Tony Stark from the Iron Man films - so I wanted to ask him about this comparison.

Richard Browning: I mean, the comparison's lovely... I love the fact that the closest analogy that the members of the public can kind of design is Iron Man. When they see this online or let alone see this in person, the closest ... it's quite cool to have the closest analogy to being that inspirational seemingly impossible kind of superhero character. You know, I can't deny that's quite fun to have that association. And in some ways I've ended up generating deep respect for the ability of science fiction to shine a light on I suppose unencumbered human creativity.

Richard Browning: Well, if you look back at what they did in Star Trek, many years ago, we've got half of the things that they were talking about and showing then, and it's funny how that technology's seemed to take a leap out of science fiction books. So I've got more of a healthy respect than I used to have, I have to say for what you see, let's say, in the Iron Man film, and actually, you know, I can't deny now when you look at some of the capability of what you see in that film, of course it's not real, and wonder to some extent if we can match it, and actually I can tell you, we are matching behind the scenes a lot more than anybody's seen online so far.

ANDREW: Now when it comes to personal flight - jetpacks aren’t the only sci-fi way of getting around town. For almost as long as there have been planes in the sky people have had the dream of one day being able to build a flying car. And thanks to recent developments - and a huge investment in aerospace companies, it seems that now might just be the start of the flying car era. Enter Pal-V.

Mark Jennings-Bates: Well, my name is Mark Jennings-Bates and I'm the Vice President of Sales for PAL-V North America. So we're rolling out the flying car in North America. It's a pretty exciting opportunity.

Mark Jennings-Bates: PAL-V is a corporation that we started several years ago now, to develop the world's first commercially feasible flying car, which is nothing new. We've been trying for a hundred years to do that and it really is not that complicated to invent a flying car. But then, to take the next step and commercialise it, is actually really complicated.

Mark Jennings-Bates: And we've seen several variants of cars that have flown, and for one reason or another, whether it's public appeal, or whether it just is not commercially feasible, they don't exist today. They're all museum pieces. So the real complex puzzle was to create a vehicle that could fly, a car that could fly or a plane that could drive, the met regulatory guidelines that we operate with today, and could be commercially adapted to a business that would function profitably. That has been a very difficult puzzle to solve, that's kept our offices back in the Netherlands very, very busy.

KRIS: Pal-V, which stands for Personal Air and Land Vehicle, is a Dutch company that’s building a flying car that kind of resembles a helicopter - although the company says it’s actually closer to a Gyroplane.

KRIS: You can drive it along the road like a car, and then take it to your nearest airport and switch over to flight mode.

KRIS: But while on paper the process sounds quite simple - the differences between flying and driving make the process a little more time consuming.

Mark Jennings-Bates: I can tell you that it's actually a push button process... will do probably 85% of what you need to do to fly, so you can press a button and watch it happen and then get out of the car and do a couple of things. So that turns the car into an aircraft. However we've just moved into a new domain, we're now pilots, we're not a driver anymore, we're a pilot and a pilot must by law do a preflight inspection of their aircraft before they live at the beginning of the day. So every day we go through a preflight inspection.

Mark Jennings-Bates: For some people it might take half an hour, for other people if they're new to the process it might actually take an hour. It certainly gets easier but it still should always remain a checklist process. The way to avoid accidents is to use a checklist and not memorise the checklist because that's when we tend to overlook something important.

ANDREW: According to the company, the Pal-V will have a range of around 1,300 kilometres when on the ground...and reach speeds of around 160km per hour. In the air it also fly for around three and a half hours , and reach around 12,000 feet. There is also twin engines which Pal-V say is the first time this has been offered on a gyroplane.

Mark Jennings-Bates: What that means for us is if we have catastrophic failure of one engine, we can still fly not in the same manner, we don't have the same performance, but we have a 10 to 1 glide ratios, we're able to find a place to land with one engine. If we lose both engines, we have a five and half to one glide ratio so we can easily pick a landing spot which is very small for a gyroplane and we can land safely and figure out what just went wrong. So that's the safety aspect, is provided by the design of the gyroplane platform within the flying car. The simplicity if you talk to a gyroplane flying instructor they'll tell you that their students tend to solo much quicker than students of a fixed-wing aircraft, because a gyroplane is so very simple to fly. Not necessarily easy, and it doesn't mean that we don't have students who find it challenging, but on average you'll find that gyroplane students were solo sometimes after only several hours of flight training. And I know typically in a fixed-wing, you might have 14 or 15 hours of flight turning before you actually solo. So we can get people really into a deep learning environment with the gyropane much more quickly and it's not complex to go through the process of learning and then finally getting your licence and then you fly across the country in a gyroplane.

KRIS: What sort of the time frame of when people will be able to purchase these and actually be able to fly them?

Mark Jennings-Bates: We're pre-selling now... and the intention is that we will start deliveries to clients in 2018.

KRIS: Pal-V are selling two models of their flying car - the sport version will sell for $400,000 US dollars and they also have a limited edition version that sells for almost 600,000.

KRIS: Now while Pal-V might be one of the closest to getting their vehicle to market there are a lot of other companies building flying vehicles - and using vastly different technologies.

KRIS: There are foldable wing cars, multi-copters, vertical take off and landing aircrafts or VTOL, paragliding cars, personal hover vehicles, and some that use a mix of ideas like PAL- V.

KRIS: Companies like Uber have also been investing heavily in VTOL technology, they kind of resemble drones, and it appears Dubai might be one of the first cities to allow real-world trials of the technology at scale.

KRIS: But given all this interest in flying cars, there’s one question left – why don’t we all own one yet?

Andrew Hawkins: I think maybe up until the last five to 10 years or so, there was maybe mostly a focus on building some sort of vehicle that could both fly and be driven on the road, which was never really a practical approach to take to this from an engineering standpoint because there were just too many regulations and too many, sort of, technological hurdles to overcome to make something like that work.

KRIS: This is Andrew Hawkins - he's a transportation reporter for The Verge.

Andrew Hawkins: In more recent times we saw a lot of breakthroughs and innovations in the material, the composite material that would be used to make these vehicles as well as things like autonomy and battery technology improving on a much greater scale, and I think that sort of led a lot of folks to believe, hey, maybe something like these personalised aircraft would actually be possible. And then you had innovations like ride-sharing and ride-hailing, Uber and Lyft and other of those types of companies, come along and, sort of, put into people's heads that there was this possibility or maybe that this could be translated over into flight.

Andrew Hawkins: I think the third component is that you have traffic patterns just being increasingly worse across the globe and pollution, obviously, as a byproduct of that. And people are just getting fed up with being stuck in traffic and not being able to go anywhere, especially in urban centres. There was a lot of folks that thought, hey, this would be a good idea, a good way to sort of circumvent that, to literally fly above traffic and to get folks between city centres and the airport or to points more distant than that.

Andrew Hawkins: And now we're seeing a lot more serious thought and serious interest from everywhere from the space agency NASA in the US to giant companies like Uber and even automotive companies like Volvo taking a great interest in this. So, I think there's definitely a shift that’s going on from, oh, this sort of symbolises the future. If you sort of put it in the same category as jetpacks or space elevators, these sort of futuristic, fantastical ideas that would never actually come to fruition, and now we're actually starting to see some sort of meaningful development.

KRIS: According to aerospace accelerator Starburst there has been more than 200 million US dollars invested in flying cars to date. A small figure in comparison to how large the market could be.

KRIS: Starburst are hoping that there will one day be a ‘SpaceX’ of flying cars and say that the ideal solution is to have an autonomous vehicle which has the capability of driving through a city and then can switch to flying mode to continue the journey.

KRIS: Francois Chopard is the CEO and founder of Starburst and says he can see a solid business case for the future of the flying vehicle market.

Francois: What we've seen now and it- it was not obvious even two years ago is that all the technology are ready. Everybody agrees on the potential architecture, the fact that it would be electric, where you put to the engines and everything. So, technology is ready, and that's really important because now we can talk about regulations, certification, and, insertion into the airspace. When you look at this there's a huge difference between just Europe and the US. Europe is very regulated, you can't fly everywhere, there's a lot of restrictions, for example, you can't fly above Paris for any reasons, which is not the case in the US. LA, you can fly with very simple helicopters almost all around the town, San Francisco is the same.

And then when you look at Sao Paulo, you can even land on buildings, almost everywhere, and you have a lot of, helicopters. So already the, you know, the regulation is very different from one region to another, one city to another, so we're gonna see um, cities that will advance um, and go much quicker on that subject than others. Which means that allow this, this car, flying above their town, above their building much easier than others. And then there's a lot of things that are already existing for a smaller aeroplane, or helicopters and as soon as long as, these new type of vehicle fall into one or two of the other category, then it's very easy to certify.

KRIS: And while it’s looking very much like Dubai might just be the key city when it comes to development of the flying car, the truth is implementing this technology at scale in any city will require changes to a lot of existing regulations. But Andrew Hawkins says embracing this technology might completely change the way we think about transport in our cities.

Andrew Hawkins: I mean, Dubai is crazy right now in terms of the amount of money and support that they're throwing at these very outlandish, untested forms of transportation. I mean, you talk about moonshots, they're interested in the HyperLoop, they're interested in jetpacks. They're really trying to position themselves as being as far out on the fringe in terms of technology, futuristic technology, than any other country I've ever seen. It's really fascinating, and it could potentially all blow up in their face, too. When they start having flying cars and firefighters and jetpacks and hyperloop all converging over one city, I have no idea what that’s going to look like.

KRIS: How do you see this technology playing out long-term in our urban landscape?

Andrew Hawkins: Yeah. I think that’s a really good question, because it is something that cities will have to contend with in the future. I mean, on one hand, you can see some of the validity in the argument from some of the supporters of this technology who say, "Oh, you know, cities already allow ... Most cities already will allow helicopter flights, whether it's for emergencies or for tourism." It's not too much of a leap to imagine some of the regulations surrounding helicopters around cities just being modified or extended to include some of these personal aviation vehicles.

Andrew Hawkins: But at the other hand, you have to ask yourself, "How are these vehicles going to be used? How are these aircraft actually going to be used? What use will they be put towards?" Uber envisions a sort of ride-hailing network in the sky, sort of akin to what they already have going on the street level. But it seems pretty hard to wrap your head around the idea that this is going to be affordable for anyone.

Andrew Hawkins: And If it's not an affordable form of daily transportation for the masses, I don’t see cities really getting on board, because they're going to experience a lot of pushback from voters and from residents who will see these things as being a transportation service for the super rich. So it will really depend on companies like Uber and others that are actually serving as a platform for any sort of, quote unquote, "flying car service" to bring costs down enough to make it affordable for people to open the door to cities and the approval that they would have to get at a municipal level.

KRIS: Who is the best-placed company to deliver on this sort of technology, because there's so many different players and they’ve got so many different approaches?

Andrew Hawkins: Yeah, that’s a great question. I think as of right now, I think Uber's interest in this is really interesting, because they're sort of the first company to come along and say, "We don’t want to be the ones to manufacture or produce these aircraft, but we want to be the platform through which they're actually used for people." Because you see a number of startups from Volocopter and Lilium in Germany to AeroMobile and Terrafugia and a number of other sort of these small startups that are working, Kitty Hawk in California run by Larry Page, who was formerly at Google. You see a lot of these startups and they're in the build and development phase where they're building these aircraft, they're building smaller-scale prototypes and trying to, sort of, wonder how it is that they're actually going to be deployed. Uber has that mechanism to deploy these aircraft.

ANDREW: Now Pal-V say they aren’t targeting their product at companies like Uber - and there’s still a lot of restrictions in terms of who can drive one - you’ll need to have both a drivers licence and a pilot's license. And on top of that, you also need to have insurance for the ground and the air.

ANDREW: But the company is expecting next-generation air-traffic control systems to help pave the way for new regulations that will help the flying vehicle market grow.

KRIS: For companies like Gravity, implementing an aerial transport systems is not something which is on the near horizon. Richard Browning says there’s still a lot to do before they can see their jetpack working for a mass market.

Richard Browning: You only have to go and watch it in person to see that the practicality of we've built for anything other than very specialist applications, is not there yet. I mean it consumes four litres of fuel a minute at the moment. It makes a lot of noise, and unlike in the Iron Man film, you can stand right next to me when I take off, but it's uncomfortable, you get a lot of dusty hot air blown in your face, and anything that's not nailed down tends to get moved away. You know, you're not gonna take the kids to school or go to the shops in this thing anytime soon.

Richard Browning: I mean, the potential of technology to evolve and adapt, the potential of electric conductive fans, which we're playing with also, and energy storage systems beyond lithium batteries... I wouldn't want to bet against the potential of human transportation evolving beyond what we see now and maybe towards much more independent personal transportation of the likes of some sort of, you know, personal mobility system. I was going to say, the very first cars were very unreliable, very inefficient, horrible burdensome beasts that people looked down and said, "Well what's the point of that? I can never see that working, a horse is much easier."

Richard Browning: So, I'm kind of conflicted, my sensible head says, no way, not for the foreseeable future, but my more futuristic head says, you know what the very fact that feels had to imagine, and yet we've made such progress in such short time, I wouldn't bet against it that we'll see some unusual evolutions in personal transportation coming.