Jetpack Inventor Goes Zipping Between Royal Navy Boats In Open Water Tests

The Royal Navy and Royal Marines have been eying the jetpack as a possible tool for boarding ships at sea and for amphibious operations.

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In what looked like a scene straight out of a Hollywood blockbuster, the Royal Navy recently teamed up with Gravity Industries' founder Richard Browning to help his test his Daedalus jetpack over open water for the first time. The U.K. Ministry of Defense has been working with Browning and Gravity Industries for more than a year now amid something of a broader revival of interest among major military forces, including the U.S. special operations forces community, in jetpacks and similar personal flying systems, something The War Zone has explored in the past.

Earlier in July 2019, the P2000 Archer class patrol boat HMS Dasher, along with two rigid hull inflatable boats (RHIB), carried Browning and other members of his team into the Solent, a strait that separates the Isle of Wight in the English Channel from mainland England. The Gravity Industries founder is also a former Royal Marine Reservist and serves as his company's main test pilot for the Daedalus, which has been in development since 2016.

“Richard made taking off and landing on the P2000 look so easy, despite the ship traveling at 20 knots," Lieutenant Lauren Webber, Dasher's commanding officer, said in an official statement. "P2000s only have a small landing area so it provided a challenge for the test pilot and the Ship’s Company very much enjoyed seeing the ‘rocket man’ in action."

The Archer class boats are less than 70 feet long overall and have a beam less than 20 feet wide. Royal Navy and Gravity Industries personnel fitted a small pad to Dasher's forward deck to serve as a landing and takeoff point. During the tests in the Solent, Browning made a number of short trips between patrol boat and the accompanying RHIBs, successfully demonstrating the jetpacks ability to operate over open water and of a trained individual to land and take off from a moving craft.

The Daedalus is a complete suit-type system. The first iteration used six kerosene-powered microturbines for vertical takeoffs and landings, as well as level flight. Two of these turbines were situated together with the main fuel tanks, an assembly that the user wears like a backpack. The flier then has two more turbines in mounts on each forearm for lateral control. 

Improvements to the design have led to the replacement of the two backpack-mounted turbines with a single larger jet engine, which has helped increase the system's maximum speed from 30 to 50 miles per hour.

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Richard Browning, wearing his Daedalus jetpack, onboard HMS Dasher in the Solent earlier in July 2019.

The system is heavily automated and feeds information about fuel and engine status to a helmet-mounted heads-up display. A wi-fi link allows a ground station to also keep an eye on things. 

The Royal Navy and other U.K. Ministry of Defense officials have suggested that Daedalus-equipped Royal Marines could help support at-sea boarding operations, such as the United Kingdom's recent seizure of the Iranian supertanker Grace 1, or amphibious assaults. Since 2018, Browning and other Gravity Industries personnel have worked with the Royal Marines, in particular, to demonstrate the system's capabilities in a variety of different littoral environments.

In January 2019, Browning brought one of the jetpacks to the Royal Marines' Commando Training Center and easily traversed its obstacle course. Four months later, other Gravity Industries pilots went to the Royal Marines' Tamar base and showed off the Daedalus by making short flights from a Landing Craft Utility Mk. 10 in Devonport Dockyard to shore. 

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Gravity Industries personnel depart a Landing Craft Utility Mk. 10 during a demonstration at Devonport Dockyard in May 2019.

"A ship you need to regain control of? You can have 10 people in different places all at once and the first thing they'll know is when they hear a faint jet noise," a representative of Gravity said after a demonstration for then-U.K. Secretary of State for Defense Gavin Williamson in April 2019.

"Yes, you are really able to do a much more discrete insertion... it's fantastic," Williamson had added at the time. "Maybe if I can have a go in future there could be a bigger order."

There are various other potential uses for the jetpacks, as well. For instance, personnel might be able to quickly move medics or other critical personnel between Royal Navy ships, or to render aid to vessels at sea, if necessary. Royal Marines could similarly use them to reposition themselves quickly on land. Depending on how easy the system is to use, it might be possible to airdrop them to personnel below, such as downed pilots, so that they could fly themselves to safety, a general concept that is gaining traction within the U.S. military.

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Richard Browing flies past HMS Dasher in the Solent.

So far, the United Kingdom has not actually purchased any Daedalus suits and it is unclear how much the U.K. Ministry of Defense has spent so far to assist Browning with its development. But U.K. officials are hardly the only ones interested in jetpacks like the one that Gravity Industries is working on.

In 2018, U.S. Special Operations Command conducted an evaluation of an Individual Aerial Mobility System (IAMS), a militarized derivative of Z-Air's Flyboard Air, which you can read about more in this previous War Zone story. Unlike Daedalus, the Flyboard Air is a jet-powered platform, rather than a suit. 

Z-Air's French founder Franky Zapata also demonstrated his Flyboard Air as part of the annual Bastille Day military parade in Paris on July 14, 2019, suggesting the French military might also have an interest in a similar capability. Flyboard Air has a stated top speed of just over 90 miles per hour and a maximum ceiling of around 10,000 feet.

Questions remain about whether or not Daedalus or Flyboard Air will be able to succeed where decades of similar developments have failed. In the 1960s, the U.S. Army, especially, working with major defense contractors, spent considerable time and resources, on a variety of jetpacks, rocket belts, and flying platforms. None of these systems entered operational use, primarily due to their limited range and low speed, not to mention reliability and safety. Daedalus and Flyboard Air are worlds more advanced than these systems and offer considerable improvements in performance, but remain hampered by overall flight time limitations.

Videos below show just some of the systems the Army tested in the 1960s.

Daedalus can reportedly only carry enough fuel to keep its engines running for around 10 minutes, depending on how fast it is going and how heavy the user and their other equipment is. Flyboard Air can similarly carry a combined weight of approximately 280 pounds for around 12 minutes while flying at a speed of around 80 miles per hour.

It is questionable, at best, whether this would allow ship-to-shore operations in a traditional amphibious assault, especially as amphibious ships find themselves forced to stage further away from the landing area due to ever-improving shore-based defenses. Even in a boarding situation, it could be precarious, especially depending on how long it might take for an operator to find a safe place to land. Daedalus, in its present form, offers no additional protection for the user against incoming fire, either.

Both Daedalus and Flybaoard Air can also reportedly operate at altitudes up to 10,000 feet, but it's unlikely that it either have enough fuel to get to that height from sea level. That being said, this does mean that they would still work at higher altitudes, such as on mountains, where it could be a useful tool for rapidly ascending and descending.

Beyond all this, despite Williamson's assertions, Daedalus, at least in its present configuration, is simply not quiet enough to be discrete and would not be useful for covert insertions or similar operations, according to the Royal Marines' own assessments. “Imagine what we could do with these suits on the battlefield – although Royal Marines pride themselves on being stealthy and one thing the jet pack isn’t is quiet," Royal Marines Captain Oliver Mason said after the demonstration in January 2019.

There's also a cost factor. As of April 2019, each Daedalus suit costs some 340,000 pounds, a little more than $413,000 at the rate of exchange at the time of writing. The price of even equipping small units or providing a small number of suits on certain ships for boarding operations or other similar activities could quickly add up.

So, it's certainly true that Gravity Industries' Daedalus, along with other developments, such as Z-Air's Flyboard Air, are pushing the technology closer than ever to being a practical military tool. But it also remains to be seen whether personal flying devices have finally come of age or if they will continue to remain novelties better suited to airshows and action movies.

Contact the author: joe@thedrive.com