- Silicon Valley venture capitalist Tim Draper who was an early investor in Elon Musk's Tesla and SpaceX ventures has a knack for spotting mobility trends early in the adoption curve.
- One he sees taking off within a decade is vertical takeoff and landing aircraft (VTOL) technology that enables human propulsion.
- Two start-ups Draper Associates has invested in are on the leading edge of this new mobility movement: JetPack Aviation and Gravity Industries Ltd.
It takes visionaries like venture capitalist Tim Draper to reimagine the future of transportation and back ideas many consider futuristic pipe dreams. But this renowned Silicon Valley venture capitalist who was an early investor in Elon Musk's Tesla and SpaceX ventures has a knack for spotting mobility trends early in the adoption curve.
One he sees taking off within a decade is vertical takeoff and landing aircraft (VTOL) technology that enables human propulsion. Two start-ups Draper Associates has invested in are on the leading edge of this new mobility movement: JetPack Aviation and Gravity Industries Ltd.
The companies both focus on VTOL technology to make travel and commuting easier and more flexible. And they both have captured the imagination of people worldwide.
Gravity Industries has developed a real-life 'Iron Man' flying suit. The exo-skeleton jetsuit has two jet engines attached to each arm and one engine mounted on the back that allows the pilot to vertically take off and fly using the pilot's shifting body-weight and arms as its thrust control; and JetAviation is prototyping the Speeder, a fully stabilized flying autonomous motorcycle that can fly one or two individuals at over 250 mph.
Getting the idea off the ground
JetAviation, led by CEO and founder David Mayman, has raised $5 million in start-up capital to date. It also created a jetpack called the JB12 Jetpack that can be worn like a backpack. Mayman himself has demonstrated the personal aerial jetpack numerous times including when he flew with it around the Statue of Liberty in 2015. The device has been certified by the FAA, and it landed a CRADA agreement with the U.S. Navy Special Forces for use in short-distance troop transportation. Since then, it has been demonstrated in nine countries to live audiences of over 300,000 and TV audiences of billions including at a Formula One event in 2018. It will start flight testing the JB12 for the military in March of next year.
The jetpack also boasts a lot of features that sound like science fiction: Over 250 mph top speed, and suitcase-sized portability, for instance.
"I think we are now in in a two-dimensional transport society and both of these companies have figured out how to make this technology more practical so anyone can fly and land from anywhere," said Tim Draper, founding partner of Draper Associates. "These are exciting and fun to ride."
As he explained society is at a point where we need to break the traditional commuting models. "Right now, we are stuck in cars, long distances require driving to an airport and getting on a plane. Imagine you can just strap on a jetsuit and take off and fly where ever you want to go. I think VTOL technology is what we are all looking for."
JetAviation originally focused on the jetpack suit, but also began developing a flying motorcycle that uses VTOL technology in 2018. The company raised seed capital from Draper Associates, Skype co-founder Jaan Tallinn, Y Combinator, Rosecliff Ventures, Cathexis Ventures and a group of angels that it says will fund the development of the Speeder's first functional prototype.
The Speeder provides a fully stabilized ride that's either pilot-controlled or fully autonomous. It can take off and land vertically. There are no exposed rotors systems, which make it a lot safer and easier to operate than a lot of other VTOL designs and helicopters, and the company says it can also be refueled in less than five minutes, which is a dramatically shorter turnaround time for powering up versus an electric vehicle.
Its jet engines are fueled by diesel since battery power is still too low for it to be used to fly long distances using electric propulsion.
According to Mayman, the Speeder, should be able to provide quick cargo transportation for emergency services and military, (its first planned uses before moving on to the consumer market,) in a much shorter period.
"It takes off like a helicopter and can carry over 600 pounds of pilot or cargo," he said.
"The army realizes it is an option that can be used to transport medics or rescue soldiers in dangerous enemy hotspots. You can swarm these vehicles instead of risking a large $35 million Black Hawk helicopter," Mayman explained. These vehicles can move autonomously at twice the speed of a Black Hawk helicopter at an altitudes ranging from 20 ft. above the ground to 15,000 feet. "
Right now, many lives are being lost because it takes a medic too long to get to a crisis victim due to ground transport, Mayman noted.
Jakob Riis, CEO of Faulk, one of the world's largest emergency and response companies agrees. "If VTOL vehicles even save just 3 minutes of medical emergency response time that can boost the survival rate for many victims, especially those who get a heart attack."
Taking the technology mainstream
According to Draper, it will take years for flying motorcycles and jetpack suits to mature into a mainstream commercial market but applications for military use are coming soon. "I think the military will use the first commercial model of our Speeder aircraft in 2024," Mayman predicts.
Amid the Covid-19 crisis, the global market for VTOL autonomous vehicles has reached an estimated at $4.4 billion this year and is projected to reach $15.6 billion by 2027, growing at a CAGR of 19.6% through 2027, according to a report by Research and Markets. Of that, $9 billion will be the military market.
Companies including Uber have been researching the nascent market. In its "Fast-Forwarding to a Future of On-Demand Urban Transportation" report it notes how VTOL technology can help commuting gridlock in cities, especially megacities and help local economies save millions of dollars in lost productivity.
Just as skyscrapers allowed cities to use limited land more efficiently, urban air transportation will use three-dimensional airspace to alleviate transportation congestion on the ground. A network of small, electric aircraft that take off and land vertically), will enable rapid, reliable transportation between suburbs and cities and, ultimately, within cities.
It has been proposed that the repurposed tops of parking garages, existing helipads, and even unused land surrounding highway interchanges could form the basis of an extensive, distributed network of "vertiports" (VTOL hubs with multiple takeoff and landing pads, as well as charging infrastructure) or single-aircraft "vertistops" (a single VTOL pad with minimal infrastructure).
Over the years the risks of VTOL technology has improved. As Mayman explains, there are normal aviation hazards flying these transporters, but now jetpack suits such as the JB12 and the Speeder have redundant engines and controls, and aircraft backup flight systems so if an engine or a control fails, another kicks in.
History of human propulsion flight
It has been 55 years since the concept of a jetsuit first captured the world's imagination when the late Sean Connery strapped on a Bell Aerosystems Rocket Belt and took off from a chateau roof to evade enemy agents in the opening sequence of the James Bond movie "Thunderball."
There have been any number of attempts to develop a practical jet suit or jetpack since Bell demonstrated the futuristic Rocket Belt to the U.S. Army in 1961 as a potential asset for special forces. But many have often been large, bulky contraptions that are as dangerous as they are unwieldy.
Richard Browning, the founder of Gravity has also been pioneering this technology since he invented his 50-lb. Jet suit in 2017, which is now manufactured using 3-D printed polymer and aluminum. The former Royal Marine Reservist set a Guiness World Record in 2019 wearing it when he recorded the fastest speed in a body-controlled jet engine-powered suit: hitting 85 mph. Wearing it a traveler can fly 5 minutes or so. It has 1,000 horsepower.
"I launched the company in 2017 after doing a Ted Talk, Tim Draper heard it and invested $650,000 in my idea in the parking lot," Browning recalls. Since then the company has grown into a multi-million enterprise.
"To date we have trained over 100 clients to fly with our Gravity suit and we make a couple million dollars a year doing training and events worldwide."
While Browning also thinks this mode of transport has tactical applications for transporting the military and in paramedic response especially in mountainous regions, he also thinks there is a market for it in entertainment and sports.
"Many adventure seekers who like sky diving and want to experience something unusual are interested in this mode of flying," he said. "Right now, we are working on our third generation Mark 3 suit that will be able to fly longer – for 7 or 8 minutes."
"Perhaps this can become a new racing sport like Indie or Nascar," said Browning noting he is launching an international racing series, and also has a Flight Club at the world famous Goodwood Estate in U.K. home to the Festival of Speed. . Browning and the team are expanding flight training to other global locations and are taking bookings.
"People around the world find this kind of flying thrilling and inspirational. We have even gotten calls from actor Tom Cruise and British adventurer Brian Grylls who want to do some training."