Reaching new heights: A&S alum Bashir Khan and AirMatrix pave the way for drone highways

January 11, 2024 by David Goldberg - A&S News

New highways in Toronto will reduce pollution and cut commute times before the end of the decade, and all without a single slab of concrete.

A&S alum Bashir Khan, co-founder of AirMatrix, is bringing drone highways to life. Imagine a multi-layered grid drawn above the city, with aerial routes taking countless cars and trucks off the streets every day. Digital infrastructure is required and that’s where AirMatrix is a global leader.

“Not far from today, when we look up, we’re going to see a lot more drones,” says Khan, who earned his honours bachelor of arts degree in 2018 as a member of New College.

“It's starting to revolutionize the supply chain and change the way we design cities.”

AirMatrix is on a mission to map 100 major cities worldwide by the end of 2024, deploying the infrastructure of tomorrow, today. It holds many advantages over competitors as one of only software companies licensed by the U.S.-based Federal Aviation Administration, to grant authorized drone pilots access to restricted airspace across America.

“Drones are going from mostly collecting data to carrying small payloads, and then larger payloads; eventually it’s going to be people riding in these things,” says Khan.

“I’m excited about the ability to fly from Toronto to Waterloo in half an hour.”

Preparing for takeoff

Bashir Khan.
Bashir Khan is a proud U of T alum who fully embraced the student experience, and now he’s helping the world prepare for the future of drone flight with AirMatrix. Photo: Supplied.

Khan was immersed in his student experience at U of T. While earning his degree, he was a captain of the Varsity Blues track and field team, a volunteer with the U of T Robotics Association, and president of the now defunct University of Toronto Black Ties, a student-run networking group that connected racialized students to employment and internship opportunities.

He also worked for a Silicon Valley based ed-tech company, Course Hero, leading their business development efforts in Toronto, helping the private company reach a billion-dollar valuation.

Most importantly, Khan made some lifelong connections while at the university.

“We travelled together, studied together, we worked out together, we’d often go out together. Building close connections and bonds that you cherish, going to U of T is one of the best places for that.”

Inspiration for AirMatrix struck one night in residence as Khan watched an endless parade of Amazon packages arrive at his building. He wondered what would happen if Amazon monopolized drone delivery and concluded it would be a death sentence for small businesses, like the ones his parents started when they came to Canada from Nigeria in the 1970s. He was compelled to democratize and regulate the drone industry.

"It was a passion project that developed into solving a real problem,” says Khan.

Learning to fly

Khan co-founded his first startup in 2016 with some of his best friends at U of T’s Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering, brothers Ayaan and Shayaan Haider. The trio tinkered with self-designed drone control and delivery apps, and, in the process, identified a critical need for mapping urban airspace and providing accurate situational awareness in 2018.

It turns out, flying autonomously in urban environments required a level of precision to avoid crashes, which navigational platforms did not provide prior to AirMatrix; like painted lines on asphalt alongside streetlights, pre-determined drone routes prevent chaos.

AirMatrix was approached by Transport Canada and the company urged the regulatory body to get in front of these high-flying notions. The government enlisted Khan and his team to help inform and design the roadmap for drone commercialization across the country.

Khan says his U of T studies were a solid complement for navigating the drone industry, which he describes as a bureaucratic minefield with a “Wild West” complex that has the potential to unlock avenues to a more sustainable future.

From shipping to public transport, to advertising and security, we are continuing to enter a new realm where humans exist in a truly 3D environment, where altitude finally factors into a world long ruled by the constraints of simple longitude and latitude. AirMatrix is a fundamental building block to this coming reality.

As a U of T alum who has worked with the private sector, governments, and even NASA, Khan has advice for aspiring innovators with world-changing ideas.

“Being an entrepreneur isn’t all about how smart you are. It’s about having a thick skin; people will reject you constantly and they will make fun of your ideas,” he says.

“Be humble and have the wherewithal to keep pushing.”