Please tell us about yourself

Priyanka Das from Dhemaji, Assam is among the very few to work for the development of the satellite navigation wing of Rafale Fighter Jets, which will be used for Indian Air Force in the year 2019.

It may be mentioned that the engine and parts of the Rafale fighter plane is provided by Safran Electronics and Priyanka and her team of engineers, before joining Safran, had already made a micro satellite in Paris. The same micro satellite was launched in space in the Atlas V rocket in 2017 with the intent to study the thermosphere.

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“Yes! My touch is there somewhere in space” says a proud Priyanka. Presently working for Safran Electronics and Defense, headquartered in France. She is a PhD student at ISAE-SUPAERO, a world leader  in aerospace engineering higher education located in Toulouse, France and overseen by the French Ministry of Defence.

Her area of research is precise point positioning and navigation of man-made satellites.

Speaking about her research, Priyanka said that she believes her findings may give a new direction to self driving vehicle technology. Priyanka also informed that her dreams of becoming an aerospace engineer started when she was a student of St. Stephen’s College and the person who inspired her was Physics Professor Dr Vikram Phukan, reports ISAE-SUPAERO.

Can you tell us about where you are coming from and what is your academic background before the PhD? How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and unique career?

I am from India, with roots from Assam, the state in Northeast India known for its tea, and which gave me my mother-tongue. I was born in the city of Shimla in the Himalayan mountains, and I grew up in New Delhi, the capital.

Ever since I first saw the sky, I have been interested in Space. This dream has been the most effective motivating factor in my life so far; sometimes directly, for example when I put in every effort to get a chance to discover NASA’s Jet Propulsion laboratory, and sometimes indirectly, like when I made the choice to do Physics over a course in art and design, my other passion. In this small article, I present my academic journey to the reader, in the hope that it might inspire some young people and show them a way of how to approach their dreams.

My parents, being from scientific profes­sions themselves, have had a big role to play during my upbringing in helping me cultivate the quality of being autonomous – I could always approach them comfortably for just about everything but my deci­sions were always my own. This sort of freedom gave me a sense of control over my life so I could really aim for the stars if I so wished. However, the most important contribution from them was, at the same time as being supportive, to be strict enough that I could differentiate between what I was privileged to have and what I had to get on my own.

Like a lot of children I was interested in several things at the same time. With time I started to focus on a select few of these fields – including art, myviolin, dance, writing, sports and of course, science and puzzles – but they were still too many in number to give me a direction in life, worrying my parents. However that did land me the BestAll­rounder Award just before leaving school. Since I did rather well in competitive exams like the Junior Science Talent Search, and the National Science Olympiads, I felt encouraged to pursue a career in science. But deep down, I was an artist and I started getting really distracted by its nature during my teens. However, like it is in India, parental pressure made me focus on my studies again and after work­ing really hard during my 12th boards, the hardest I have ever worked for the sake of rote learning, I secured a 95%. It served as a trampoline for me, as it secured me a place at Stephen’s College for an honors course in Physics, and my adventure in the exploration of science thus began (and my mother seemingly forgave me for messing up my IITJEE exam). Itwas a difficult decision at first because the National Institute of Design (NID) at Ahmedabad had also offered me a place, but sometimes choices have to be made. I was always very passionate about Space so I started my academic career with a Bachelor’s degree in Physics (Honors) from St. Stephen’s College, University of Delhi.

While at St. Stephen’s, I realized that my aerospace dream could actually become a reality. I did my first summer internship at the Inter Uni­versity Accelerator Centre at Delhi where I studied the focusing properties of magnetic quadrupoles on a charged beam of particles. Seeing that particle physics involved similar principles as light optics, my perspective on Physics post-school started to mature. Pursuing my newly developed curiosity for optics, the following year I did an internship at the Photonics lab at IIT Delhi, on holography, a subject that I became obsessed with because itwas so artistic as well as scientific. In my final year, I was selected for a summer course in experimental physics at the Homi Bhabha Centre (HBCSE) orga­nized by TIFR Mumbai. My academic experience at St. Stephen’s was thus quite rich and eventful. The fact that I turned up with very little preparation for entrance exams for masters like JAM, JEST and TIFR, and yet qualified with good ranks too showed that I had indeed enjoyed my bachelors and been a serious student. However, it did not mean that I felt satisfied as deep down I felt the need to explore more – not just academically but in what life had to offer in general.

Thus, encouraged by my professor Dr. Bikram Phookun, I jumped upon the opportunity to apply to École Polytechnique in Paris. École Poly-technique is one of the most prestigious schools in France, having produced several of the best French minds since the end of the 18thC, and it was given a military status by Napoleon himself in 1794. I men­tion this because people in India do not generally know much about France,exceptthat there is the Eiffel tower in Paris. Moreover, there are a lot of stereo­types about west­ern culture that are either baseless or unimportant, and some people I know were even skeptical of the term ‘Polytechnic’ itself. However, if we stay stuck to what people say and believe, we would never make progress ourselves. Thus, I would like to highly encourage students to apply to French universities like École Polytechnique. My parents were a bit troubled by the fact that it was a four year course; a master normally takes two years. But as Dr. Phookun told me, two extra years hardly makes a difference when we think about a career doing what we love. Moreover, the course at Poly‑technique gave us not just one internationally rec­ognized master in science and technology, but two of them, and the second year can be counted as a second bachelor. Thus it is quite far from a waste of time. My happiness knew no bounds when I received my acceptance letter! I had even received full scholarship and a paid flight to France. École proved to be the second major trampoline in my life. A new country, a new culture, and a plethora of opportunities. There was so much I could learn and do at the same time – I even took up fencing as a sport and competed at university level.

Wishing for a slightly more multidisciplinary approach to science, I then joined Ecole Polytechnique for its 4-year Ingénieur Polytechnicien program (promotion X2013), specializing in my third year in Data Science. The fourth year, when we have the possibility of joining another ’école d’application’, was when I joined ISAE-Supaéro for a double degree masters in Aerospace Engineering, specializing in Autonomous Systems and Data Science.

Ecole Polytechnique is renowned for its four-year undergraduate/graduate Master’s program called the Ingénieur program which attracts the strongest students from the famously selective entrance exam with a broad scientific education, and opens the way for many of them to careers in positions of influence in government, industry, finance, and research.

Among all the cheese, travel, student associa­tions, parties and wine ­ great experiences when one is in their early twenties – I had not for­gotten my aerospace dream. In fact it was more alive than ever. In my first year at École, I participated in an event called ActInSpace, or­ganized by the CNES, the French Centre for Space Studies. Our team developed an origami-inspired design of solar panels around a space probe for ease of de­ployment in space, and won the first prize in the Paris region and made it to top 5 in France. The next year I was part of a team that made an actual microsatellite for the QB50 project, a mission for developing a network of CubeSats built by Universities teams all over the world to make a global map of the largely unexplored lower thermosphere. My work was on he communication channel between our CubeSat and our ground station. Our satellite was launched n May 2017 with the others from the International Space Station itself via the Atlas-V rocket, and it is still in orbit, transmitting atmospheric data. I have a piece of code in space!

Encouraged by the success of my proj­ects, I jumped at the opportunity of applying to the 2015 Caltech Space Challenge, organized by the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), in collaboration with scientists from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). I really put all my effort and prayers into it, but I was still really surprised when I was named among the 32 selected from around the world! The challenge itself consisted of simulating the planning of a mission to send astronauts on an asteroid captured and put in an orbit around the moon by NASA’s Asteroid Redi­rect Mission (ARM). It was not just all work and no play – we got a chance to visit JPL, play beer pong with NASA scientists, and have a good time! The experience overwhelmed me from a scientific perspective as I realized I was too young and inexperienced to be of any important service to an organization like NASA. This was when I decided that I needed to either do a PhD or work as a re­search engineer.

I did a research internship in my third year at the University of Sao Paulo in Brazil. Needless to say it was another opportunity to experience a different culture at the same time as delving deep into a scientific field. I have always had a deep interest in Computer Science as it is a very versatile field with applications in every field, which is evident when we look at the way the world is becom­ing more technology based. I was starting to get interest in Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Autonomous Systems. My third year spe­cialization, and thus my first master degree from École Polytechnique, was in Data Science. In Brazil, I worked on a Real-time Indoor Localization System (RTILS), where I trained a system of trackers for automatically and fast localizing a robot with high precision using a particle filter. This internship also gave me a taste of the domain of autonomous navigation. By the end of the third year, I was looking for a PhD that would combine navigation, satellites, machine learning and AI, and give me some opportunities to travel and practice my art.

Why did you decide to enter a PhD program and why ISAE-SUPAERO?

During my first year at École, I had learnt that there was a possibility of doing our 4th year as a double diploma exchange student at ISAE-Supaéro, France’s top school in the domain of aerospace. When they came to present themselves at École Polytechnique, they took us on a visit to the campus of Safran, a leading aerospace company in Europe.

There, we were greeted by Jean François Clervoy, an alumnus of both Polytechnique and Supaéro … and a French Astronaut for the European Space Agency (ESA)! I had then a deep desire to study at Supaéro and one day work for Safran. As life turned out, I got accepted at Supaéro from where I recently earned my second master, in Aerospace Engineering with a specialization in Autonomous Systems, Decision Sciences and Robotics, and thereafter through a recruitment process, I got accepted for a PhD in collaboration with Safran.

So here I am, writing this article from my office computer at Safran. There are numerical simulations open on the other windows nearby. My PhD, to explain briefly, is on studying the navigation signals from satellite systems (like GPS) and fusing them with other physical navigation devices so that we can have a robust solution for a super precise position, of the order of centimeters. The GPS we use today from our phones is rarely more precise than at least a few meters. My research could have applications in autonomous cars and planes where a few centimeters can make the difference for sur­vival. Thus, I managed to get the PhD I had been wishing for, and now I strive to continue to pursue my Space dream!

The story goes back to my 2nd year at Polytechnique. I had the fantastic chance of participating at the Caltech Space Challenge 2015 at Pasadena, USA, where I met a lot of scientists from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and many motivated students. The experience was great, but it also made me realize I was pretty much amateur when it came to Space and lacked experience in research. Therefore, I decided to pursue a PhD. ISAE-Supaéro is arguably one of the best institutes for aerospace in Europe, if not the world, with really good professors, and I did not wish to waste this opportunity while I was a student there.

Can you briefly explain the topic of your thesis?

The exact title of my PhD is “Robust and Precise Navigation using Tightly-coupled Hybridization of Inertial and GNSS Phase Measurements“. I am currently in my first year of PhD, on a CIFRE contract with Safran Electronics and Defense, directed by Prof. Eric Chaumette of ISAE-Supaéro, and co-supervised by Prof. Silvère Bonnabel of Mines ParisTech. I am working on a specific problem of satellite navigation, aiming to get a position with centimetric precision using Precise Point Positioning (PPP) techniques. It can find application as an extra layer of positioning security that can be added in autonomous cars and aircraft.

What do you plan to do after your PhD thesis?

One of the ideas behind doing a PhD, especially a CIFRE an industrial PhD, is to postpone making professional decisions by three years, while still keeping a foot in both academics and industry. In the meantime, every day, I discover new possibilities for what I could do in the future – there are so many new fields coming up requiring diverse competencies. I would definitely like to work in R&D later on as research is liberating for someone who loves to learn and yearns for creativity, but most importantly, there is a lot of scope for personal growth as well.