Please tell us about yourself

Avinash Rao and Malcolm Snowdon launched their rocket about 700 metres into a clear blue sky above North Canterbury yesterday.

A rocket designed and built by two University of Canterbury students had a perfect launch into a clear, blue North Canterbury sky yesterday.

The rocket, designed by engineering students Avinash Rao and Malcolm Snowdon, was launched from an Amberley paddock.

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Avinash Rao is a PhD student investigating rocket control systems at the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Canterbury University. He is working in conjunction with Malcolm Snowdon and Rocket Lab Ltd on sounding rocket control systems.

The main aim of Avinash’s PhD is to develop new methodologies for controlling rocket trajectories throughout the various stages of flight. This includes real-time adaptive control to enable the rocket to learn how to better control itself as it flies in real time.

How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and interesting career?

Avinash grew up in Wellington before moving to Hawke’s Bay. He enjoyed the sciences, especially physics and biology, while at school but was also keen on learning new languages, leading to a year on exchange in France at the end of high school.

Upon his return to New Zealand, Avinash came to Canterbury University to study a Bachelor of Engineering with Honours. He chose the mechatronics programme, based on his keen interest in robotics and aerospace.

Tell us about your experience at Canterbury?

Avinash graduated at the end of 2009, having spent a challenging but enjoyable and rewarding 4 years as an undergraduate student. Highlights included winning the inaugural mechatronics Robocup competition in 2008 as well as the IPENZ Ray Meyer Medal in 2009 for best student project in a team of four. Also in his final year, Avinash enrolled in the rocket systems engineering special paper offered by the Engineering Department, which led to a summer scholarship and then his current postgraduate study in the field.

Avinash has been impressed by the wide variety of opportunities offered at Canterbury University and in Canterbury in general while he’s been living in the region, as well as the calibre of staff and students. Aside from academic studies, Avinash enjoys playing sport, music, travel and aviation. He has been heavily involved in the University of Canterbury Hockey Club over the past 2 years, both as funding officer and treasurer, and is currently working towards gaining a private pilot’s licence through the Canterbury Aero Club.

How is your work related to rockets?

Based at Rocket Lab in Auckland, Avinash works as a guidance, navigation and control engineer for the Electron project.

Rocket Lab is producing New Zealand’s first orbital rocket launch vehicle.

Avinash was a project intern at Robinson in 2010 while in his final year of a mechatronics engineering degree at the University of Canterbury. His PhD thesis, completed in 2014, developed attitude control systems for small rockets.

“I worked in a team of four to design and build a splicing machine for high temperature superconducting strands. The material could only be manufactured reliably in short lengths, so we built a device to splice two lengths together with a very low resistance join.”

He says the Robinson Research Institute staff worked with the students to keep them on track and get the project completed in the required time frame.

“We were encouraged to apply our skills to a problem that was unsolved at that time. They set us lofty goals for the device, which made the project challenging but ultimately very rewarding. As it turned out, we far exceeded their goals—a result that helped us win the IPENZ Ray Meyer Medal for Excellence in Student Design in 2010.”

Avinash believes his experience at Robinson has been hugely beneficial in his career, especially learning how to tackle practical problems with no textbook solution.

“It’s exactly what you come across in industry. The guidance (and sometimes criticism) of my supervisors helped me understand the need to continually move forward, even if I am faced with limited information to make a decision. This is a key lesson that I have remembered and applied ever since.”

What are your future plans?

In the future, Avinash would like to work in the aerospace industry as a control systems engineer.