[Image above] An electrified wingsuit developed in collaboration with vehicles company BMW allows pilots to gain altitude, unlike a traditional wingsuit. Credit: BMW, YouTube
Usually when I read strange headlines, I immediately assume they refer to an event in Florida—where else would someone have a meltdown over a restaurant running out of lettuce? But in September and October this year, California grabbed people’s attentions when the Los Angeles International Airport reported not one but two instances of a person flying with a jetpack near the area.
Though the identity of the mystery flier is unknown, the story captured people’s interest because of what it represented—the increasing possibility that jetpacks will become a technology accessible to the general public.
What people may not realize, though, is there already exists a way to go flying over rooftops at a fairly reasonable price—though the tradeoff is it requires a lot of practice and skill.
Wingsuit flying is the sport of gliding through the air using a specialized suit that adds surface area to the human body to enable a significant increase in lift. The sport was popularized in the 1990s by Patrick de Gayardon, a French skydiver who is credited with introducing the first version of a “safe-to-fly” wingsuit modeled on the same principle that allows flying squirrels to glide.
Though the sport is called wingsuit flying, “gliding” is a more accurate description. Flying implies the ability to control both horizontal and vertical movement in the air. But wingsuits are at the mercy of gravity—the whole experience involves always heading downward, even though you are able to direct your side-to-side movements on the inexorable descent.
But what if you could control the vertical movement of your flight? What if, instead of always falling down, you could choose to move upward at some points instead?
That idea of controlling vertical motion captured the imagination of wingsuit pilot Peter Salzmann one day in 2017 when he was developing suits for skydiving and BASE jumping with a friend.
“In a relaxed atmosphere one evening after a day of testing, we threw out lots of ideas about how we could improve performance. One of them was a supporting motor—and it’s an idea I just couldn’t shake. I found the idea of being able to jump from my local mountain wearing the wingsuit and land in my garden fascinating,” he says in a BMW article.
The idea led him to a partnership with BMW i, a sub-brand of BMW founded in 2011 to design and manufacture plug-in electric vehicles. At the time, researchers at BMW i and Designworks, the BMW Group’s design innovation studio, were developing the company’s second full-electric car, the BMW iX3. They used research from that project to help design the electrified wingsuit.
The final wingsuit design positions the propulsion unit on the pilot’s chest rather than back because that position allows for the most advantageous airflow. The unit itself features two 5-inch (13-cm), 25,000-rpm carbon impellers inside a lightweight carbon fiber and aluminum structure; a 50-V lithium battery powers the device.
Before testing the electrified wingsuit during a real jump, Salzmann and the BMW i researchers carried out extensive testing in controlled settings, including a series of tests in BMW’s horizontal wind tunnel AEROLAB and a wingsuit wind tunnel in Stockholm, Sweden. The Stockholm tests in particular were an important part of the testing process.
“The first test in the wingsuit wind tunnel in Stockholm was a milestone for me. I couldn’t stop grinning. Because until that moment I had no idea whether I could control a flight with the impeller,” Salzmann says in the BMW article.
They initially planned to premiere the electrified wingsuit in South Korea, by flying over some skyscrapers in the city of Busan. However, the COVID-19 pandemic threw a wrench in those plans, and they instead flew over the Del Brüder peaks in the Hohe Tauern mountain range in Austria.
The video below is the results of the Austria flight, which Salzmann performed alongside two other pilots in regular wingsuits as contrast to the electrified version. The second video provides a deeper look at the design process and the testing that took place leading up to the actual flight.
Though the South Korea flight did not work out for the premiere, they still plan to fly there in the future. “I will have to train more. We will optimize the technique and look ahead boldly,” Salzmann says in the BMW article.