Innovation

Sail: How daredevil Jeb Corliss uses wearable tech to fly like a bird

Last week the wingsuit pilot strapped on a set of wings, jumped out of an airplane, and landed on the Great Wall of China. Here's how tech helped him train for and survive the harrowing flight.

Image: Jeb Corliss / Airglass

Last week stuntman Jeb Corliss strapped on a set of wings and jumped out of an airplane. Corliss zipped across the sky, through the clouds, over the jungle, and landed safely on the Great Wall of China. To accomplish this mission, the world-famous, death-defying wingsuit pilot trained for the Great Wall landing using a virtual reality visor to calculate altitude, velocity, flight accuracy, and other key metrics.

Corliss is the quintessential gadget geek and uses a number of technologies to plan for and execute dangerous stunts. "The Great Wall project had tech unlike anything we have ever used before," he explained in an interview deep from the Chinese jungle. After his flight, Corliss spoke with TechRepublic about how sport cameras, Internet of Things (IoT), and virtual reality assist his daring dives.

What technology do you rely on when performing wingsuit flights?

One of the most important parts of training is seeing what you are actually doing. I learned how useful filming and reviewing footage was when I took high diving lessons early in life. I would do a dive, and it would be filmed with a delay. I would swim to the side of the pool and my dive would be played back to me so I could instantly see what I was doing. When I started doing projects in BASE jumping I would use this same technique in order to learn faster.

I wear five GoPro cameras all facing different directions. This allows me to see what my wings are doing during different parts of the flight and helps me work on accuracy and efficiency.

I also use a special GPS system called a FlySight. It is specially designed for wingsuit flying and gives real time audio feedback with either glide ratio or forward speed.

After you land, you then place the information on your computer. [Data] mixed with footage can track exactly what you are doing and how your performance is, based on what you do with your wings.

SEE: Augmented reality gaining more traction than virtual reality in the enterprise (Tech Pro Research report)

The Great Wall project had tech unlike anything we have ever used before. GoPro has something they call HeroCast. I was blown away at its size and how it worked. Of all the live shows I have done to this point, the only live cameras were on the ground using long lenses, or attached to helicopters. We would usually land, and the SD cards would be gathered, and the footage would be used as replay a good five minutes after the jumps were over.

This was the first time we had six live cameras. One in the chopper, two on me, one on my head, one on my belly, and a camera man following me with a live camera on his head. The cameras were tiny, and weighed only as much as two GoPro Hero Black [cameras]. They had a range of 13,000 feet. I have never seen technology like this before, and to say I was impressed is a true understatement.

We also had the latest in VR technology. This was rad because the audience that just watched the live show then got an opportunity to experience the stunt.

I was able to use [VR] to scout locations from a height I couldn't get to in person. I got very sick the second day in China, right when we were scouting. I needed to check angles to see if the flight was safe. I was too sick to make the hike to location, so Rapid VR took a GoPro VR Omni rig and put it on a six meter light stand, then shot a VR film right over the stunt site. They then rendered it, and put it in VR goggles so I could float over the location and see it from every possible angle. It was amazing because I could tell instantly the location was safe and doable.

While training, what smartwatch and other IoT fitness gear do you use?

I don't use a smartwatch for training in the air, but I do use it for training when I work out. I use Apple Watch for biking, stairs, and running. I use it to track my fitness and reach goals that I set for myself.

In the air I use something called an AltiTrack. This is what lets me know my altitude and gives me decent rates that I can check against my GPS. It's a way to double check numbers, to be sure they are accurate.

In flight, do you use a heads-up display (HUD)?

I use to, but found it distracting when proximity flying. The audio works better and doesn't distract while doing difficult flying. I have used augmented reality during training for both the Flying Dagger project and the Great Wall. [AR] worked a bit better for the Flying Dagger project than it did for the Great Wall, unfortunately. During the training for the Great Wall, the AR goggles malfunctioned and we couldn't get them to work properly. But when they worked for Flying Dagger they were pretty amazing. Being able to skydive and having virtual terrain under you is something special. I can see how it will be used in the future, once they work all the bugs out of the system.

The wingsuits use RAM-air technology, the same technology modern day square elliptical parachutes use to create and maintain a wing-shape that generates lift.

What does the future of wingsuit technology look like?

The Human Arrow project is designed to create technology that will allow wingsuit pilots to become more accurate, but in a safer environment. Instead of flying through smaller and smaller holes in cliffs, which will end in death, we designed a target made of paper and fishing line that can be suspended between steel poles as far apart as the pilots would like. This will allow pilots to hit a bullseye four inches in diameter with a GoPro, in a relatively safe environment.

We built and tested the targets in a way that when winds go beyond ten miles per hour, the maximum safety limit, they blow apart. This adds a level of safety. If the pilot is on final approach to target, and the winds begin to gust at unsafe speeds, the target will disappear. This tells the pilot to abort and fly away. The goal is to add human archery to the World Wingsuit League later this year, where the greatest wingsuit pilots in the world can compete to see who the most accurate really is.

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Note: Some quotes have been modified for brevity and clarity.

About Dan Patterson

Dan is a Senior Writer for TechRepublic. He covers cybersecurity and the intersection of technology, politics and government.

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