Sunday, July 23, 2017

Fanatic Frontier: Treks to Comic-Con 2017

Fanatic Frontier: Treks to Comic-Con 2017:

Fanatic Frontier: Treks to Comic-Con 2017
A fan dressed up as Iron Man at the 2016 Comic-Con International in San Diego. At the 2017 con, a panel discussed real-world Iron Man-like technologies.
Credit: Matt Cowan/Getty Images

SAN DIEGO -- Greetings from the happiest place on Earth for fans of comic books and science fiction — Comic-Con International in San Diego!

I'm here at the convention to report on some of the science fiction and real-world science being discussed. We'll be updating this page with small tidbits from the convention, so check back in to get more updates.

And for truly extensive coverage of the con, be sure to check out our sister site Newsarama, your source of comic book news, reviews and all things genre entertainment. [Comic-Con 2017: A Space Fan's Guide]

The state of Iron Man tech

How close is humanity to living in a world where people commute to work in individual flight suits like the one that Iron Man wears? Well, inventor Richard Browning certainly isn't claiming that such a thing is on the horizon, but he has invented a jet-engine-powered flight suit and has used it to levitate above the ground for about 10 seconds at a time.

During a panel discussion on Thursday (July 20), Browning discussed how he quit a corporate career in the oil and gas industry to create his company, Gravity, which is building the suit.

"Our technology combines body-mounted [miniaturized] jet engines with a specially designed exoskeleton allowing vertical takeoff and flight," according to the company website. "The 'Daedalus,' our mark 1 jet-engine suit, is pioneering an entirely new category in aviation history."

At the panel, Browning discussed the physical demands of wearing the suit, and said the movie "Iron Man" starring Robert Downey Jr. does a pretty good job of showing what it was like for Browning to try to learn to balance himself in his suit.

In a TED Talk he delivered in April, Browning showed footage of himself trying to keep his body steady using various arrangements of the miniature jet engines on his arms, legs and back. He said that with the current arrangement, which has a pair of engines on each arm, he must physically balance against about 130 kilograms of force (about 300 lbs. of force) on each side. For that reason, he's started doing intense calisthenics training.

Unlike the fictional Tony Stark's suit, which runs on an equally fictional device called the Arc Reactor, Browning's suit designs have run on jet fuel or kerosene. They burn about 1 liter (0.26 gallons) of fuel per minute, he said, which would add up quickly over a 20- or 30-minute commute. Browning said he doesn't see any safe way to utilize a more energy-dense fuel, so the next step might to be adding some kind of airfoil that would keep the rider aloft and help the individual move forward without the engine running constantly.

Also on the panel was Chris Gerty, an informatics system team lead at NASA's Johnson Space Center. Gerty is working on new spacesuit designs for NASA, and he discussed some new ideas he and his colleagues are working on to put digital displays inside spacesuit helmets — not unlike those portrayed inside Tony Star's suits in the "Iron Man" movies. For real-world astronauts, these displays could provide information about how the suit's critical systems are functioning, Gerty said.

When astronauts on the International Space Station go for spacewalks, teams down on Earth monitor the spacewalkers' suits. But that setup won't work on Mars, because it takes at least a few minutes for a signal to travel from Earth to the Red Planet, Gerty said. The status of an astronaut's suit will have to be monitored by a colleague who is also on Mars, or by the astronaut.

Gerty and Browning were joined on the panel by stuntwoman and actress Zoe Bell — who is the second person to test fly the flight suit — and Adam Draper, founder of Boost VC, an investment firm that focuses on futuristic technology and is backing Gravity. While discussing his reasons for investing in companies like Gravity, Draper said, "The future either looks like 'Mad Max' or 'Star Trek.' Whenever I can make it look a little more like 'Star Trek,' I invest."

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