BMW’s electric technology will power thousands of sedans and SUVs during the 2020s, but the company’s ambitions are much higher — literally. It’s forward-thinking BMW i division teamed up with Austrian stuntman Peter Salzmann to develop a battery-powered wingsuit capable of propelling the person wearing it through the air at up to 186 mph.
Creating the device that allowed the 33-year-old Salzmann to fly above the Austrian Alps took about three years. While the wingsuit isn’t a new invention, the drive unit that powers it was developed from scratch. It needed to be relatively compact, reasonably light, power dense, and, of course, reliable — no one wants to run out of juice at 9,000 feet. BMW leveraged its expertise in electric powertrains (it released the i3 in 2013, before EVs were cool) to make it work.
Powered by a 50-volt lithium battery, the drive unit is built around a pair of carbon fiber propellers that spin at up to 25,000 rpm to develop 15 kilowatts, which represents approximately 20 horsepower. BMW built the casing out of aluminum and carbon fiber — two materials found across its portfolio — to keep weight down to about 26 pounds. It then tested the device in the same wind tunnel it uses to make its cars as aerodynamic as possible.
As development engineers made progress on the drive unit, Salzmann fine-tuned the actual suit. It’s like a racing suit, or an astronaut’s suit, but pieces of fabric reminiscent of a flying squirrel’s skin membranes allow the person wearing it to glide through the air. With the pieces ready to be assembled, the team began planning how to test the suit in real-world conditions for the first time. With fingers and toes crossed, the Austrian Alps were chosen.
Salzmann jumped out of a helicopter hovering at nearly 10,000 feet and let himself glide before switching on the drive unit. He flew over the mountains, Superman-style, and landed safely by deploying his parachute.
Everything went according to plan, but that doesn’t mean BMW will add the wingsuit to its range of vehicles. Digital Trends learned from a company representative that there are no plans to mass-produce the device in the near future. Salzmann pledged to continue developing the electrified wingsuit, so if BMW doesn’t build it, someone else might.