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Photo of Tarek Ibrahim
Tarek Ibrahim. Photo by Mike Ford

The Air Up There

Tarek Ibrahim wants to make personal flying machines a reality

“So many people have called me crazy,” says Tarek Ibrahim (BA 2003 WOODS), chuckling almost non-stop as he speaks of his project to build an inexpensive, personal aircraft for everyday use. “I don’t mind. It’s doable, it really is.”

Ibrahim has hired about a dozen others, mainly engineers and designers, to consult on the project, and they are currently working toward launching an unmanned prototype into the air by this summer, for testing and then assessment by Transport Canada’s regulators. “What surprises me actually is that it hasn’t already been done. When Igor Sikorsky first tested a helicopter in 1910, he dreamed it would be used as an everyday mode of transportation.”

A rendering of the Airvinci One personal drone, capable of carrying up to 118 kilograms.
A rendering of the Airvinci One personal drone, capable of carrying up to 118 kilograms.

Last October, at a well-attended TEDx Toronto talk, Ibrahim, 34, articulated the basic aims for his one-person airship: that it be cheap to build and run (about the cost of a car), compact, safe (of course), and take off and land vertically. “This one we’re working on is six feet wide and could fit in your driveway. It also doesn’t need a runway, since its two blades, going in opposite directions, are enough to get it up and down.” In this way, his project differs from the most well-known ones out there: even the tiniest micro-planes need a runway – the pair who famously used jet packs to fly around Dubai last May got a mid-air launch from a helicopter.

Ibrahim’s consistently jokey affect conceals an underlying relentlessness – and the way this dream grew in him and now won’t let him go. His favourite book when he was a boy was The Way Things Work, and he used a spare room in his family’s Kuwait home as his workshop, dismantling his toys. “We fled during the [first Gulf] War, then I came to Canada at age 16, to study engineering. Instead of going to classes, I built a model airplane in my apartment,” he says. Not surprisingly, he failed out (of St. Mary’s University, in Halifax), but did well a couple of years later, when he attended Woodsworth College and specialized in architectural studies. “But many of the buildings I designed were moving, with lots of mechanical parts, like big machines.”

After graduating, he worked for his family’s business, building factories around the Middle East – a job he left in late 2014. “This idea, the plane, wouldn’t leave me alone. I built a car from scratch, and I thought, ‘If I can do that. . .’” To date, he’s worked with an industrial designer to mock up three iterations and with assorted engineers (aeronautics, mechanical) to do up specs for the necessary parts. He knows there are challenges, both technical and regulatory, ahead: “I don’t believe existing air traffic control systems will be able to handle the extra traffic. Zones will need to be developed outlining altitudes, boundary areas and pathways.”

In aviation terms, he’s got minimal financing – just under $200,000 of his own and his family’s money – but maximal tenacity. “I can’t let a problem go until I’ve researched a solution. I never can.” If existing technologies can be combined into an everyday flying machine, why haven’t we done so yet? “I’ve thought and thought about that. I think we’ve gotten used to big companies like Boeing and GM doing things for us,” he says. “There are challenges ahead – ones I know about, and ones I don’t. But we can do this.” The audacity of it all makes him laugh again. Of course.

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  1. 2 Responses to “ The Air Up There ”

  2. Levant says:

    Very cool! I've been following Backpack Helicopter on Facebook for a few years now but didn't realize the hero behind the product is a fellow U of T alumnus.

    As a skydiver, I would love this as I could get myself to altitude for my jumps! Quite revolutionary!

  3. C.Ho says:

    Actually, very funny, I thought of this a long time ago. but I never had the science to do it. I always said to people that one day we will be travelling in the air because the traffic is bad and getting worse. The only way it so go up.