On 13 March 2019 the UK Intellectual Property Office (UKIPO) granted a patent (GB2559971) to a UK company, Gravity Industries Limited, for “A wearable flight system with propulsion assemblies worn on a user’s body”, otherwise known as a jet suit, or jet pack. Gravity Industries are already offering demos of their product and are even offering the public the opportunity to try it out. In order to be patentable, one of the requirements is that the claimed invention is new. However…personal flying machines have been ‘known’ for many years! Partner and Patent Attorney Alex Bone looks back at previous versions to understand why this one is patentable.
In about 1485 Leonardo da Vinci drew an ornithopter, which is essentially a human powered set of flapping wings which were intended to give a user the power of flight. They may not have worked, but the idea of a human flying was certainly there. After that, for many years, flying machines, personal or otherwise, were the stuff of fiction.
The first jet pack design was apparently developed in 1919 by a Russian inventor Aleksandr Fyodorovich Andreyev. Although Andreyev was awarded a patent, it seems that no physical versions were ever made and the idea of a jet pack didn’t really enter the public consciousness for another decade.
In 1928 the cover of the Amazing Stories comic featured a man flying with a jet pack (of sorts) and some years later controversial WWII rocket expert Wernher Von Braun allegedly worked on a project for the US army after the war, which later became project Grasshopper, aiming to build a “jump belt”.
The military didn’t lose interest in this mode of transport and Bell Aerosystems was commissioned to make a Small Rocket Lift Device (SRLD). In the early 1960s the Bell Rocketbelt was unveiled to the public and went on to help none other than James Bond to escape SPECTRE in the 1965 film Thunderball. The belt (more of a backpack) comprised a pair of thrust nozzles that could be directed by a user using joysticks.
Subsequently, others made modifications of the rocket belt and one appeared in the opening ceremony of the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. In the 1990s the American Rocket Belt Corporation was founded and created a working product that could fly for about 30 seconds (up from the previous 20 seconds or so), but the company fell apart over money.
Given the long history of the jet pack, and the numerous fictional devices that are known, what is it exactly that makes the Gravity Industries invention patentable then? When the application was first filed, the Applicant claimed only a flight system comprising a combination of a left and a right hand propulsion unit.
The Examiner at the UKIPO found three pieces of prior art against the claims. Unusually the prior art included the suit used by the fictional Iron Man character from Marvel Comics, which includes propulsion units on the hands of the suit. This is not the first time unusual prior art has been cited in patent cases! A comic strip from The Beano was cited against a patent application for an entry signal system for pets, and a Donald Duck comic strip was apparently cited against an application directed to a method of raising sunken or stranded vessels.
In this case it was argued that the disclosure in the Iron Man comics and films was not considered to be enabling, but no decision was reached on the merits of that argument as the claims were amended before the Examiner had to comment in detail. It would have been interesting to see if the fictional disclosure of the suit in Iron Man would have been considered enabling, and therefore novelty destroying, for the very broad claims originally filed. For film buffs, the 2015 film “The Martian” also discloses the concept of an ‘Iron Man’ like hand thruster (in this case a hole in a space suit) to direct flight through space. Although still fictional, the film might be considered to provide slightly more scientific basis for the thrust system than Iron Man.
The amendment made to the claims to achieve grant was to include a body propulsion assembly to support the torso (Iron Man’s suit has propulsion units on the feet). The Examiner ultimately considered that this arrangement of the body propulsion assembly and the two hand units provided a stable flight platform by providing three points of thrust generation, and that this arrangement was not disclosed in the cited prior art.
It is exciting to see that jet suit technology is still being developed and now seems to be approaching a commercially viable state. Perhaps we will see more patents in this area in the near future, but competitors are going to have to find a way of dealing with Gravity Industries’ patent.
If you would like any further information, or if you have developed your own personal flight system and would like assistance with protecting it (and possibly even testing it!), please contact a member of our team.