The idea of human flight isn’t new. Our undying desire to lift off the ground and sore through the skies like a bird helped us build some engineering marvels. Yet we never stop dreaming. Getting into a plane and flying in it is one thing. But that isn’t really human flight. The idea is that we alone must have the ability to fly.
That is why we made wingsuits. Wingsuiting is the pinnacle of human flight. When they first came into the market, they captured the attention of a great number of thrill-seekers. What we saw afterwards were waves of GoPro videos and the ones from Redbull. The idea of personal non-powered flight was finally realised.
Now, BMW is taking it to the next level with the World’s First Electric Wingsuit.
What are Wingsuits?
The name ‘Electric Wingsuit’ sounds very technological and super flashy. But what exactly are wingsuits?
Ever seen a flying squirrel in action? It is a species of squirrels found in South East Asian Countries like India, Sri Lanka and China. Although the name seems obvious, flying squirrels do not actually fly. Instead, they glide from one tree to the next using a patagium. A patagium is like an expansion of the skin of a squirrel that stretches from the wrist to ankle. This membrane increases the surface area to aid gliding through the air.
Gliding is actually a controlled fall. The technique uses gravity to fall but not vertically. The increased surface area of the patagium helps decrease the rate of descent and increase overall lift. This almost creates the effect of flying.
Now, wingsuits are designed in the same way. It is sort of like a parachute that we can wear. The suit increases the body surface area in contact with the air generating a significant increase in lift. This way, instead of falling vertically, it becomes a controlled forward glide. The suit creates a fabric surface area between the legs and under the arms. The pilot can accelerate, decelerate and control the rate of fall using body manipulation techniques. This changes the way air flows under the suit so that the pilot can manoeuvre while in air. Modern wingsuits can hit speeds of up to 200kmph. The intense thrill during the activity made it a common sporting activity.
But the main disadvantage is that your only source of acceleration is gravity. This means that you will always only go downwards and not up. This isn’t really flying.
But that is no longer a problem.
The BMW Electric Wingsuit
Stuntman and daredevil Peter Salzmann was thinking of some way to add a simple propulsion system to ‘elevate’ the wingsuit experience. He had the idea in his mind for years. Finally, he approached the BMW Designworks studios to realize his dream. The team at BMW immediately clicked with the idea and offered to help make Peter’s idea a reality.
Peter’s initial idea was a propulsion system on the back like a backpack arrangement. But this arrangement proved to be too heavy for him. Later, he and the team found that the optimal airflow arrangement would be in front of him. So they decided on a chest mount. The device has 2 5-inch impellers that run at 25,000 RPM to generate thrust. It is still compact and almost has the look of a submarine. They redesigned the wingsuit to incorporate air inlets to the impeller system. Peter can control it with an on/off switch, a throttle, a steering mechanism and a kill switch in case of emergencies.
The Electric Wingsuit is a beast!
The team’s initial idea was to demonstrate it between three high-rise buildings in North Korea. Two of the skyscrapers were the same hight while the final one was actually taller. The idea was to cross the final one by thrusting upwards instead of flying around it. But COVID-19 gave their aspirations a clear “NO GO” sign. So, the team head out to the Del Brüder peaks in the Hohe Tauern mountain range. This mountain range was in a similar arrangement to the buildings at North Korea. It was also closer to home for Peter.
The device puts out a moderate 20hp for around 5 minutes. But the results are jaw-dropping. A regular wingsuit has a glide ratio that is 3 metres of horizontal glide for every 1 metre of the drop. They also reach speeds of around 100kmph. When Peter hits the throttle on the electric impellers, he reaches speeds of over 300kmph and actually flies upwards with an altitude gain.
There were two jumpers along with peter to act as reference points. While they flew around the final mountain peak, Peter soared above it making history.
While it is a breathtaking feat, there is no confirmation whatsoever that BMW will make it available to the public. BMW used the demonstration as a promotion to its upcoming iX3 electric SUV. But we know that we will be seeing more of Peter and his electric wingsuit in action. And maybe one day, an electric wingsuit could become a common thing among the public. It could even become a new sport.
Read more on ‘Electrified Wingsuit Flight: The making of’.
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