The next evolution of human flight – more personal, more diverse, more sustainable

The history of humans’ fascination with flight can be traced from Icarus, through Leonardo da Vinci, and all the way to today’s thrill seekers in wing suits.

Along the way we have also witnessed the creation of the jet age and the modern network of commercial flight.

But human flight continues to evolve – at both the large and small scale. Although most people’s experience of flight today might largely involve airports and security checks and departure lounges, there is a raft of innovation underway that promises to make ‘flying’ ever more diverse and more personal.

Making science fiction a reality

Perhaps one of the most enduring dreams for human flight is the flying car – or, as they are more formally termed, the personal air-land vehicle.

Despite the ubiquity of flying cars in films and television shows and books, the reality of these vehicles has remained tantalising out of reach. The technical challenges of powering flying cars have proven hard to overcome, but there are also regulatory issues with how such vehicles would safely operate in the skies above our heads.

However, 2021 has seen a significant breakthrough. Pal-V, a Netherlands-based company originally founded in 2008, is the first company to achieve full certification for both road and air travel after completing EASA (European Union Aviation Safety Agency) approvals. As such this represents the world’s first fully legal and commercially available flying car. 

Breakthroughs like Pal-V are huge steps towards make the dream of taking to the skies without having to check-in at the airport a reality.

Achieving individual flight

But there are also innovators out there who are pushing to make flight even more personal.

Richard Browning of Gravity Industries is one man who pioneering a new era of personal flight with the world’s first patented jet suit.

Gravity’s jet suits combine physics and cutting-edge technology to allow anyone to experience individual human flight. Indeed, some members of the public even got a chance to fly at this year’s Future Lab at the Goodwood Festival of Speed. 

Gravity has massive plans to expand the use of its jet suits in 2022 – for both fun and more professional uses. Not only will the company launch an international race series to create the Formula One of the skies, but it is also working closely with search and rescue and military organisations to help vital emergency services use the jet suits to reach inaccessible or dangerous environments more quickly and safely.

And beyond…

Of course, there is one area of flight that has received a huge amount of attention in 2021 – space flight. 

Until now, leaving Earth has only been open to astronauts such as Tim Peake, who train and prepare for years. Although the flights offered by SpaceX, Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin come with a huge price tag for now, there is no doubt that having the ability for non-astronauts to experience space flight is a major milestone in the human story. 

Although the dream of holidaying on the moon may still be a way off – we are certainly on the cusp of a new era in human flight on the final frontier.

Pushing for a more sustainable future for flight

Of course, for all the excitement around the future of human flight, we also need to bear in mind that there is also another key challenge facing aerospace engineers – sustainability. 

For the commercial aviation companies this is accelerating the research into sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) – which will also certainly impact the companies creating flying cars. These fuels are a key step to making flight greener.

For more personal flight devices like the Gravity set suit, electrification will also form part of the future of flight. Unlike road cars, electrification and flight are not natural bedfellows – but that is not stopping the engineers on the frontline of personal flight. 

Last year witnessed the biggest commercial plane to take off and fly powered by electricity alone. And at this year’s Future Lab event at the Goodwood Festival of Speed Gravity Industries launched its electric jet suit which uses fans instead of fuel to get the person off the ground. 

This more sustainable future for human flight is still very much in its early stages. However, there is no doubt that our desire to achieve flight will continue to drive innovators around the world to find solutions and deliver all of the benefits of the next evolution of flight without the carbon footprint. 

About the Author

Stuart Parker is Head of Future Lab at Goodwood Group. Our team of nearly 600 people are asked to deliver a great deal as we strive for perfection. In return for their investment in what we do, Goodwood offers an exceptional environment to work in; 12,000 acres of ancient woodland and parkland in the South Downs National Park; a unique mix of activities, a warmth towards the team’s friends and families and a strong sense of collective success.

©Jiri Senohrabek