Like most inventions, Gravity started almost by accident. And like all successful startups, Gravity has evolved from humble beginnings by building a basic product which since day one has undergone constant testing, iterations, and improvements.
For Richard Browning, Founder and Gravity chief test pilot, it all started when he strapped a micro-gas turbine engine to an old washing machine which consequently flipped slideways when he increased the engine speed up to sixty percent thrust.
From accident to invention
The power of this one engine did more than just flip the old washer – it sparked a whole number of new ideas and possibilities which on paper would sound ridiculous if not downright impossible. It didn’t take long though for Richard to start experimenting further with the massive power of this rather unassuming piece of technology.
Given the washing machine incident, it was only logical that the engine should be taken off the machine and strapped onto the body of a human being, namely Richard, for further testing. What happened next is precisely that; with a mop bucket full of gas and the engine mounted into an aluminum cast, the first prototype of the Gravity jet-suit was born.
Soon enough, the mop bucket was tossed away and a backpack was used as a fuel tank, and while one engine was good, two engines were even better. So began the defiance of gravity.
Over time the Gravity suit has undergone continuous experimentation and numerous upgrades. At one point, the suit comprised six turbine engines; two on each forearm and one on each lower leg – but this created too many directions (or vectors) of thrust which were not only hard to control but also physically hard work. Today, the suit has lost the leg-mounted engines and consists of five engines in total: two engines mounted on each forearm and one large engine mounted on Richard’s back.
It’s cool, but why?
Beyond the first impressions of seeing the black airborne figure of Richard flying through the sky in a not too dissimilar fashion to Tony Stark, Gravity might seem like an outrageous and even opulent project, one that has no further value beyond the spectacle of watching this innovative, technological success in flight. But as Richard will explain, the project has more potential than what initially meets the eye.
Having reached a point whereby the suit is safe enough to train complete amateurs to fly (one private individual has even commissioned a suit for his own private use) there are many practical applications that give the suit far more merit than being a fancy toy for personal fun and games.
Gravity has attracted the interest from, among others, the US military with the view of using the suit for search and rescue missions or for delivering goods in rapid response situations. For example, were a soldier injured someway up a mountainside or across an impassable ravine, a Gravity pilot can transport emergency medical items or other vital goods and deliver them within a matter of minutes, thereby saving lives or enabling a critical operation (e.g. medical, military, search and rescue) that might have otherwise failed had the quick delivery not been made.
While the use cases for the Gravity suit are many, it’s too early to tell in which direction Gravity will go beyond its current point of development. A second suit in now in operation and the first appearance of two Gravity pilots was seen for the first time only very recently.
One of the more impressive features of the Gravity suit is the heads-up-display (HUD) unit as part of Richard’s Daqri helmet. The HUD provides Richard with immediate visibility of all critical systems data such as flight/systems readiness, engine speed/RPM, and fuel consumption/levels.
Over the past six months, we’ve been working with Richard to develop an Android application that collects and centralizes the data from the suit and transmits this data to the HUD which projects information about the entire suit system into the helmet visor. For us, working in partnership with Richard has been excellent in that he has been following what in the startup world is called the lean methodology. Central to this methodology is the build, measure, learn feedback loop.
Build, Measure, Learn
The build-measure-learn feedback loop is one whereby a new product (i.e. MVP) or feature is built and then tested in the real-world, either with users or in practice (as is the case with the Gravity suit). From every test, one should learn what worked well and, more importantly, what did not work so well. Testing in the real-world yields what is call validated learning: that of collecting real data on your product that tells you in hard facts or figures what is working well, what isn’t working well, or possibly some other information which reveals how successful the product is performing or some other learning which you never expected.
In regards to the Android application that we’re building for the Gravity suit, we constantly receive validated learning from Richard on a regular basis about how the app is performing and the improvements that can be made. This has allowed us to implement new changes and make iterations to the application which has seen the app evolve over time.
That fact that Richard follows the same methodology as we follow in software/app development is what has made for such a brilliant technology partnership between Gravity and Whyable. For anyone who is looking to start or running a startup, it’s well worth listening to Richards story on YouTube about how he managed to successfully build a hardware product and business that many would have simply considered impossible.
If you thought the Gravity suit couldn’t get any more technologically advanced, think again. Richard and his team are working on designs for extendable wings so as to enable long-distance flight; these wings will effectively turn a Gravity pilot into something of a jet airplane. The entire concept of this is, at this point in time, little more than sketches on paper but such wings are a real possibility – as real as the Gravity suit itself.
For Richard Browning, the sky really is the limit. And as for gravity, well, it’s nothing but a name.