He fled Ukraine under the barrel of a gun. Now his invention could turn the tide of Putin’s war

Gene Avakyan knows what it’s like to grow up during times of tension, Robert Waugh writes

Tuesday 06 June 2023 07:54 BST

An aerospace engineer and entrepreneur who left the USSR as a child has created “robot” planes that he says could “change the world” and hopes they’ll be used in the war to help his birthplace.

Gene Avakyan knows what it’s like to grow up during times of tension, having been born in Kyiv, Ukraine, before leaving the country when he was just nine years old – fleeing in the middle of the night and made to walk a gauntlet of “soldiers with AK-47s” just to get on a train.

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Since then, his life has changed dramatically, with the 52-year-old falling in love with aviation and space travel as a teenager, and dedicating his time to developing new technologies in this area.

The founder of Edison Aerospace, who has 10,000 followers on Instagram (@geneavakyan), originally launched the company to create robotic aircraft for crop-dusting, but now hopes that his creations can help swing the war in his home country’s favour.

He has been in talks with US defence officials and Ukrainian politicians about aircraft designs for military use – including ones for locating anti-aircraft missile batteries and for delivering cargo and dropping munitions.

“When I left Ukraine I was nine years old and it was 1980 – we had to pass through an empty railway yard in the middle of the night, past Soviet soldiers with AK-47s,” Gene told Jam Prime.

“The experience of leaving the country was very memorable.

“It took us over four months to finally reach the US, after a harrowing experience actually crossing the border in Chop, Ukraine.

“I left with my parents and grandfather, and we were heading to San Francisco, California, where our relatives had established themselves after also fleeing two years prior.

“This kind of experience gives you the perspective that things can change in an instant, and you need to be ready to drop everything, sacrifice some comforts, and run.

“My mission as an entrepreneur is to really help Ukraine down the road, both with military and agricultural aviation, because it's a huge market for agriculture and will require modernization of its defence capabilities.

“Once you can lift a tonne of weight and fly it for 100 miles, you can make your fields grow better, plant seeds… or even drop bombs.

“It’s really a question of what is the right thing to do at any given time.”

Gene, who studied aerospace engineering at UCLA in California, now lives in Florida but still feels passionate about Ukraine and the injustice of the war being fought there.

He said: “I felt disbelief when the invasion started.

“I couldn’t believe it was happening and was worried it would be over in a week, that Russia would just roll over Ukraine.

“I was very happy to see that didn’t happen with the help of the US and Europe.

“But the events of the past year have shocked everyone the world over.

“I want to get involved and be on the right side of history.

“And I believe that the war in Ukraine is pretty clear cut.”

Gene Avakyan at his high school military training

He is currently working with the US Federal Government within the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

This is the US civil aviation administration, the equivalent of EASA in Europe.

Gene’s technology involves electric, optionally-manned aircraft that are piloted from a truck trailer on the ground or can fly fully autonomously.

His aircraft can fly for about an hour, with a battery roughly the size of the one in Musk’s Tesla Model Three.

The full-sized plane’s wingspan is 40 feet, it carries 200 gallons of payload to spray, and will replace the manned spray aircraft flying today.

Aside from the war efforts, he hopes that this will help rebuild the country, as well as improve agriculture across the globe.

At present, crop spraying is done by pilots climbing into a small plane and spraying the fields by flying low and fast – which is very dangerous.

Gene said: “Around 10 pilots are killed in the US alone every year from colliding with trees, hills, power lines and other terrain.

“I hope that our aircraft will help prevent these deaths in future.

Gene Avakyan with a construction set before going to the US

“We want the same guys who fly the existing planes today to switch to flying my planes, it’s very important to my business ethos that we are not displacing anybody but making the existing workers and companies better off.

“At present, the companies who fly crop dusters spend too much money on buying and servicing the planes, so their profit margins are very low or they go into the red when there’s an unplanned breakdown of a plane

“My aeroplanes will cut their operating costs in half.”

Gene also believes that electric passenger planes will soon become a reality – starting with air taxis.

He’s hoping to raise funding to build a series of prototypes.

Aside from Edison Aerospace, Gene and his wife, Victoria Unikel, an artist and businesswoman, have founded several other businesses such as VUGA Media Group, Gossip Stone TV, and 24Fashion TV.

And he says the couple “work great together”.

He said: “My wife is my hero, working with her is a lot of fun and I couldn’t have made it to where I am without her.

“We created everything we have together.

“I lead on the Edison Aerospace stuff, and she leads in the other businesses, because they’re much more relationship-based – and she’s got bucketloads of charm.”

Gene feels grateful for how much his life has changed since childhood and the luxuries he can now afford.

He added: “My parents decided to flee and take me away from the USSR because to save me from living a life under communist despots.

“They themselves faced a decline in quality of life to do this, a sacrifice, to see me grow up in the US and to see their grandchildren born in US as well.

“I feel grateful for the life I have now.”

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