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18 B orn in London to Barbadian students and sent to live with his grandparents in Barbados at six months old, Saif-Deen Akanni, now 51, is the founder of and chief technical officer at UAV start-up Sentient Blue. An early childhood punctuated by regular visits to the then Seawell International Airport to welcome his mother home or wave her off as she returned to her studies sparked his fascination with aircraft, and set him on an indirect path into engineering in aerospace, Formula One and now UAVs for humanitarian missions and very small gas turbines to power them. An early ambition to be a pilot lasted until he was 19. Studying at a competitive international school in New Mexico, he was all set to learn to fly at Embry Riddle Aeronautical University in Florida, when, sensing an opportunity to make some “easy, honest money” as he puts it, he bet a fellow student that he would be accepted by, first, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and also, as a ‘double or nothing’ wager, by Cornell University. He won the bet. His parents persuaded him to take up the place at Cornell, from which he graduated with a degree in mechanical and aerospace engineering, by which time he’d also fallen in love with racecars. That led to a 28-year career in which he has shuttled between motorsport and aerospace/defence, mostly as an aerodynamicist and flight physicist. He has held permanent positions with the Haas-Ferrari Formula One team, Sauber Petronas Engineering and March Cars, as well as consulting and subcontracting roles with companies including Rolls-Royce, BAE Systems, General Dynamics, EADS, Airbus and Audi Sport. At Rolls-Royce he gained knowledge of gas turbine engines for airliners and tactical jets, and built up practical experience of aircraft design at Airbus, spending several years in its flight physics department dealing with aerodynamics and aeromechanics. Efficient engineering Formula One was “by far the most relentlessly efficient and consistent engineering exercise in which I have been in involved”, he says. “I learned scientific rigour from Rolls-Royce and Airbus, and Formula One taught me how to work effectively and efficiently. “The thing I really love about Formula One is that the cycle from concept to finished product is about nine months, so nobody has any time to hide and mess around.” At Airbus he was involved in the design of the wings for the A320neo and A350 airliners, while at Rolls-Royce he worked on engine aerodynamics for the A career in motorsport and aerospace has given Sentient Blue’s founder the ideal grounding in UAV development, he tells Peter Donaldson Racing certainty April/May 2018 | Unmanned Systems Technology At Airbus, Akanni was involved in the design of the A350’s carbon fibre wing, which as well as the innovative vortex-managing Sharklet tip has efficient high-lift devices and flap track fairings (Courtesy of Airbus)