Startup soars with LEGO drones

August 3, 2017
Kate Repantis | MIT Alumni Association

Like many kids, Amir Hirsch ’06, SM ’07 grew up playing with LEGOs. But unlike many adults, is still playing with them as part of his job as CEO and co-founder of Flybrix. Started in 2015, the company sells kits for children and adults alike to build their own reusable drones out of the popular plastic building bricks.

“It lets you tinker around with LEGOs, come up with a design you like, and see it fly,” Hirsch says.

In addition to the LEGOs, Flybrix kits come with all the parts necessary to build a drone and make it fly, including motors, a fully-routed Arduino board, and a lithium polymer battery.

Learning opportunities abound. Builders gain insight into the aerodynamics of the drone’s fan, the electromechanics necessary to control a motor, and flight basics including balance and feedback. Hirsch, who double-majored in mathematics and electrical engineering and computer science (EECS) for his bachelor's and earned a master's in EECS, says such concepts become much clearer when actually flying a drone built by hand.

“You really feel the feedback system trying to keep it stable,” he says.

But what goes up must come down. The average Flybrix drone can stay up for five minutes.

“Most of the time when I’m flying something, people ask that I crash it into the wall,” said Hirsch who earned his degrees in electrical engineering and computer science as well as mathematics. “Because they all want to see it shatter into a lot of pieces.”

All of the kit’s pieces can be reused to build another drone. To date, Hirsch has only lost one.

“I flew one that’s [stuck] just above the white board [of our office] … it’s not accessible unless you take down the wall,” he says.

In 2016, the company sold more than 8,000 drone kits online and hopes to be in many national retail chains this December. Flybrix has sold nearly 500 units to school systems around the world, including many in STEM-focused school programs in Australia.

While the company primarily targets young people 14 years and older, Hirsch says he expects interest from other areas. “I bet you that retired pilots are our best demographic,” he says.

Flybrix is not Hirsch’s first startup. In 2011, he founded Zigfu, which received seed funding through Ycombinator to build and market an application programming interface (API) that aids developers of motion games and gesture user interfaces. Prior to that, he founded a company that made educational iPad apps.

He recalls some advice he received from an MIT alumnus as being integral to his career, even before he caught the startup bug. He summarized the conversation in a 2013 blog post that was later picked up by Forbes.

“You have to think about building up a market approach for how to get customers … and how to use technology to build a defensible position,” he says. “Technology is not a prerequisite for business success, but marketing is.”

This article was republished with permission from the MIT News Office.