With spare parts and derring-do, Ottawa's own Rocketman reinvents skating

Brydon Gibson is turning heads on frozen stretches of the Ottawa River with a homemade device he jokingly refers to as his "jetpack." In reality, the gas-powered, propeller-driven gizmo is more Rona than NASA.

Brydon Gibson's gas-powered gizmo can propel him at speeds of up to 40 km/hr

Brydon Gibson gets ready to test drive his 'jetpack' on a frozen stretch of the Ottawa River. (Francis Ferland/CBC)

An Ottawa man is turning heads on frozen stretches of the Ottawa River with a homemade device he jokingly refers to as his "jetpack."

In reality, Brydon Gibson's gas-powered, propeller-driven invention is more Rona than NASA.

"I got my hands on some weed whacker motors and I figured strapping one on my back and making skating a little bit lazier would [be] a good idea," said Gibson, 24.

I was actually getting a little scared at one point because I was going a little too fast.​​​​​​- Brydon Gibson

He bolted a 38-centimetre propeller to a wooden frame, fashioned a throttle out of a brake handle and cable salvaged from a 10-speed bike, then added padded straps cut from a dollar store backpack. He laced up his skates, and suddenly Gibson was zipping along at speeds reaching 40 km/h. 

WATCH | The 'jetpack' in action:

Homemade ‘jetpack’ has man zooming along the Ottawa River

3 years ago
Duration 1:02
Featured VideoBrydon Gibson used a discarded weedwhacker, bicycle parts and backpack straps to create a homemade jetpack, which helps him cruise along the Ottawa River on his skates.

"I was actually getting a little scared at one point because I was going a little too fast," the inventor admitted.

There are no brakes, but there is kill switch to cut the power "when something goes wrong," said Gibson. "It's actually a little finicky."

The six-kilogram 'jetpack' consists of a weed whacker engine, a model airplane propeller and some scavenged parts from a 10-speed bike. The green straps were cut from a dollar store backpack. (Francis Ferland/CBC)

This is not the first iteration of Gibson's invention. As a teen, he built an electric propulsion device in his parents' basement, though it never got to the testing phase.

"Ever since I was a kid … I've been taking apart things I found on the side of the road, making a mess of my parents basement, spreading electronics everywhere," he said. 

The throttle is made from a MacGyvered bike brake and cable. (Hallie Cotnam/CBC)

Gibson has built remote-controlled airplanes and boats, and once even attempted a homemade hovercraft.

"It's kind of gotten me into some rough scenarios.… I've almost lost a finger in the past, but I've never had any serious injuries yet," said Gibson, looking around the frozen expanse of the Ottawa River for some wood to knock on. 

Gibson's obsession with tinkering led him to study computer systems engineering at Carleton University. He now works for Blackberry QNX, a company that focuses on autonomous vehicle technology.

He's working from home during the pandemic, and the restrictions have meant he's had a lot of time on his hands.

"Spare time with COVID, [and] not seeing anyone? I'm doing this instead," said Gibson.

Gibson, left, awaits liftoff as friend Paolo Campanaro, right, give the propeller a spin. (Francis Ferland/CBC)

Apart from the unreliable kill switch, Gibson has built few safety precautions into his latest device, at least for now.

"There's no cage [around the propeller], there's no anything. This is just a prototype. Eventually maybe I'll add some safety, but not right now," he said.

There's another design limitation: a second person is needed to get the gizmo going, "because when it's strapped to your back you can't reach the propeller to start it," explained Gibson. "You just spin the propeller by hand the old fashioned way, like they did on the old planes."

Gibson's friend Paolo Campanaro is happy to help out. "Ever since I met him, he's always had these crazy inventions going on," said Campanaro admiringly. "He's my genius friend."

Jess Gibson, 26, tries out her little brother's invention on a frozen lake southwest of Ottawa. (Brydon Gibson)

Campanaro, 21, has also taken a spin with the device.

"It's kind of nice to not have to use any leg muscles while you're going down the river pretty fast. It's just a unique invention we can all have a blast on," he said. "Honestly, it's just like skating without doing any work."

Gibson was able to convince his mother and sister to give it a go, but besides Campanaro, hasn't had much luck recruiting testers outside the family. He thinks he knows why.

"Probably the safety," Gibson reasoned, though he pointed out there have been no serious mishaps yet.

He did get some rave reviews when his sister posted a TikTok video of her brother zipping across the ice.

"I got a few marriage proposals apparently," said Gibson. "I guess she has friends that are into engineers."

Gibson plans to improve on his design. 'Bigger propeller, more thrust, more speed, more fun.' (Hallie Cotnam/CBC)

Gibson is still fine-tuning his invention, and says he has plans for improvements.

"Bigger propeller, more thrust, more speed, more fun," he said. "This is what I do. This is my life."

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