Residents of the quiet town of Salisbury, in the south of England, had no clue until last week that their neighbor, a 38-year-old oil trader named Richard Browning, is a real-life Iron Man in the making.
The amateur inventor had been secretly building a jet engine-powered exoskeleton suit, and he recently unveiled how the futuristic ensemble enables him to hover in the air like a superhero.
Despite the noisiness of the technology, which consists of three sets of miniature jet engines attached to the arms and the back, Browning managed to keep the work completely under wraps. For 18 months, he had been experimenting in his garage, trying to figure out the optimal number and position of the jet engines to allow him to fly with a minimal amount of equipment. [Humanoid Robots to Flying Cars: 10 Coolest DARPA Projects]
"The philosophy behind all this was: Could we reimagine how a really raw form of human flight would work?" Browning told Live Science.
"The human body is very good at being trained to do specific things, and it's a useful structure, and the human mind is a pretty amazing machine. So, we had this idea — rather than go and rely on aluminum structures to build the machine, rely on gyros and computers in order to achieve stability, why not rely on the human machine, keep it as raw and original as possible?"
Browning, a former marine reservist who runs ultramarathons and performs calisthenics stunts, admitted that piloting the device takes quite a lot of personal strength and body coordination. There is no steering mechanism, and speed and direction can be adjusted only by changing the direction of the engines' thrust, solely using upper-body strength.
"You have a trigger at your right hand, which controls the arm engines, and you have a trigger at your left hand, which controls the rear engines," said Browning. The inventor added that he was inspired to create the suit by the Greek myth of Daedalus, who made himself wings to escape from captivity. The suit takes its name from the myth.
"You preset the power levels. Your arms are held out, and as you then line them up vertically and direct them towards the ground, all the thrust vectors [thrust vector is the direction in which the engine produces force] start lining up and you achieve lift-off. When you want to go down, you flail your arms again."
Browning, who recently established a company called Gravity, said he hopes to further enhance the technology. Currently, he can stay in the air for up to 10 minutes using the exosuit. Browning said he thinks he could eventually fly more than 60 mph (100 km/h) and to an altitude of about 330 feet (100 meters), but so far, the inventor has kept his superhero experiments at a running speed of about 5 mph (8 km/h) and an altitude of only 3 to 6 feet (1 to 2 m) above the ground.
The next phase of the project will focus on improving the suit's performance, and that work will include experimenting with longer flights, Browning said.
"There is also some parallel development going on with airbag technology and parachute technology to enhance safety and allow us to fly higher — for example, above water," he added.
Since the unveiling of his innovation, Browning has been flooded not only with invitations to demonstrate the technology at high-profile events but also with queries from daredevils and wealthy technology lovers keen to have their own Iron Man-style flying suits, the inventor said.
"The cost is about $250,000, so it's something that you could buy instead of a Lamborghini," Browning said. "It's not intended for the mass market at this stage."
The next generation of the Daedalus suit will most likely have a suspension mechanism that would make maneuvering the technology easier, even for people with less physical strength than Browning, he said.
"It's really an amazing piece of engineering," said Pete Wood, a tech enthusiast and digital marketing manager at RS Components, a global supplier of industrial components and tools. RS Components is helping Browning to fine-tune the technology and streamline the circuit boards controlling the Daedalus suit's jets.
"Right now, it's more about displays, but I can imagine in [the] future, it could be used by the emergency services, for example," Wood said, hinting at a future of flying firemen rescuing people trapped in burning fifth-floor apartments in superhero style.
Original article on Live Science.