Flying man, cybersecurity part of second day of NWA Tech Summit

by Kim Souza ([email protected]) 586 views 

An estimated 2,000 attendees of the 10th annual Northwest Arkansas Technology Summit in Rogers saw Gravity Industries demonstrate its flight backpack with Paul Jones, head of flight training, lifting off Tuesday morning (Oct. 31) in the parking lot at the Rogers Convention Center.

Jones demonstrated flying in a roped-off area about 8 to 10 feet in the air, circling the crowd and with 7 jet packs, two on each arm and three in the backpack where fuel was also contained.

Based in the United Kingdom with an office in California, Gravity was one of around 100 vendors at this year’s tech summit. Gravity was founded in March 2017 by Richard Browning, who was a commodity trader in the U.K. before the venture. The startup raised attention and capital early on, attracting $650,000 in the first two months of operation from Tim and Adam Draper, early investors in Tesla and Skype. Gravity has also closed on $6 million in Series B funding.

Maria Vildavskayam, chief operating officer at Gravity, said she knew Browning while working as a U.K. commodity trader, and she became interested in his efforts to build a jet-fueled pack that could help people fly.

“It seemed like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for me, so I joined the company, and it’s been a wild ride,” Vildavskayam said in an interview following the demonstration.

She said there are 20 people at the company. Most are based in the U.K., and the work takes her and other employees around the world. They found Bentonville after Browning attended the UP.Summit held in Bentonville in the summer of 2022. Vildavskayam said the jet suit is patented and made from carbon fiber, aluminum and 3D-printed polypropylene to achieve great strength and minimal weight. The suit can run on jet fuel, diesel or biofuel and has five to seven turbines. Typical flight time is between 4 and 7 minutes, depending on conditions.

She said the operator with maximum fuel and the right conditions can stay up longer. The company has worked with search and rescue as operators can fly in remote locations at low levels. She said flight can still be safe in 45 mph winds, rain and low visibility. The company is also working with the military in special operations around the world. The company is hopeful the entertainment industry will take notice in the future for possible action movies and even promotional displays.

Gravity’s California training site is located in Bakersfield, and there, consumers can buy flight packages and get training to try the experience. The company is also starting to draw interest from extreme racing enthusiasts and has hosted races in places like Australia. The Greater Bentonville Area Chamber of Commerce extended an invitation for Gravity to consider hosting a race in Northwest Arkansas in the future. Vildavskayam said if there is sufficient consumer interest, that is a possibility.

“I would love to see us do some work in this beautiful state, maybe some search and rescue or even races. We would love to come back,” she said.

Several sessions on Day 2 of the summit dealt with cybersecurity. Arvest Bank, Verizon and Meta each held sessions on this topic on Tuesday. The financial losses incurred by businesses and the growing sophistication of hackers continue to escalate. Last year U.S. consumers reported 800,944 instances of cybercrime, according to the FBI’s annual report.  Phishing attacks were the most popular, with 300,497 complaints reported. Total losses due to phishing attacks exceeded $10.3 billion.

Pete Huitsing, a security engineer at Meta who lives in Northwest Arkansas, said the pace of innovation is such that he often feels he sees more in a week or month than others may have seen in a lifetime. He said the bad actors often have a headstart on the businesses trying to fend off threats as they have all the tools, such as generative artificial intelligence, to help them be more efficient too.

“Adversaries having scale will also likely impact smaller organizations disproportionately in the future, I fear, as they don’t have the teams in place for defense,” he said.

Huitsing said smaller to medium-sized companies should partner with companies and buy protection because the sophistication of the dark side continues to improve, and once they get in, it’s too late.

Last year 493.33 million ransomware attacks were detected by organizations worldwide.

Healthcare is one of the areas with the most costly breaches in 2022. Washington Regional Information Technology Director Bill Walker said that of the hospital systems 30 technology employees, 6 focus on cybersecurity and fending off threats. He said with more companies and vendors using open-source large language models in their applications and data, the risk of breach can also increase. Washington Regional said they carefully screen access of anyone trying to source data at all times. He said the threat is real and requires investment and vigilance.