Aerospace has always been a domain of the few, flying higher than other careers in Engineering ! However, with the sky opening up to private players, diverse sectors and autonomous technologies the opportunities for innovation are enormous.

Tanvi Prakash, our next pathbreaker, work at L&T as an Aircraft Designer and Airframe Engineer, specializing in Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV).

Tanvi talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about always wanting to be an Aircraft Designer, and as an extension of it, deciding to pursue a career in Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) due to its vast potential in Design and Innovation.

For students, with Drones and UAVs being deployed for everything from rescue missions, films, home delivery, terrain mapping etc, Aerospace is as interesting and challenging as it gets !

Tanvi, tell us about your initial years?

I grew up in Bombay in the ‘90s. My father is an engineer-turned-physics professor, and my mother used to be a shop-floor supervisor at a French pharmaceutical company. The atmosphere at home was always one of scientific curiosity and discovery.

Like many school students, I was fascinated with space and I wanted to be an astrophysicist. One of my earliest scientific influences was winning the Dr. Homi Bhabha Young Scientist Medal in Class VI and IX. The intensive summer camps conducted for the awardees at Nehru Science Centre and Jawahar Science Centre in Bombay were some of the most exciting days of my school life.

I read voraciously and my school, Lok Puram Public School had an excellently stocked library. But I wasn’t entirely a bookish nerd. I enthusiastically took part in public speaking, debates, quizzes, environmental conservation activities and drama. Representing my school at inter-school events in these fields brought me in contact with many other students of my age with similar interests.

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

I earned a Bachelor’s degree in Mechanical Engineering from VJTI Mumbai and now (in 2020) I’m nearing completion of an Aerospace Engineering M. Tech (Aerospace Structures) + Ph.D. (in Aircraft Design) from IIT Bombay. 

What made you choose such an offbeat, unconventional and unique career?

As a school student, the thought of a career in fundamental scientific research excited me, but I greatly enjoyed being a creator; I liked to work with my hands. I was always building something (or taking it apart). My house was a bit of a “tinkerer’s lab”, with assorted magnets, lenses, Mechanix kits, electrical components and breadboards lying around. One of my pet projects was a double-periscope shaped like a caterpillar!

When I thought about it after Class X, I realised that I wanted to learn how to build machines, preferably flying machines. I wanted to be an Aerospace Engineer.

It was the mid 2000s and I was advised that a B.Tech. (Aerospace) did not have career prospects in India and I noticed that anyway, there were not many reputed government colleges offering a B.Tech. (Aerospace). That’s why I decided to select the next field that interested me: Mechanical Engineering.

In hindsight, choosing Mechanical over Aerospace at B.Tech. level was a good decision. I was able to study many useful subjects which a typical Aerospace undergrad student does not study, such as strength of materials, mechanical vibrations, theory of machines, metallurgy, and Finite Element Analysis (FEA).

How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Tell us about your career path

I enthusiastically studied (almost!) all subjects in the B.Tech (Mechanical) curriculum at VJTI. In my third and fourth year, I interned at a local precision manufacturing company as a Quality Engineer Trainee, where I learnt a lot about work ethics in industry as a practising Mechanical Engineer.

Towards the end of the B.Tech. course, I was fairly certain that a good mechanical engineer requires practical experience of building machines. It may be that further education was required to get better at it, but I badly wanted to test the waters of the industry and took the plunge! It was a fairly offbeat decision back then, given my interests and academic credentials. I put on hold my (decent) GRE and GATE scores and plans to do a Master’s, instead joining Larsen and Toubro as a Graduate Engineer Trainee, through campus placement. The company inducted me into their Defence and Aerospace business as a Senior Design Engineer.

I started with the role of an Engineering Simulation Specialist at L&T’s Product and Technology Development Centre in Powai. In the beginning, I performed explicit structural FEA simulations for high strain-rate phenomena like explosions and collisions. The satisfaction of seeing my first design commissioned by DRDO was unparalleled.

I got the opportunity to interact with experts in my field from IISc, DRDO, ISRO, IIT and very soon, I was in awe. It was clear that a Master’s degree was the minimum requirement to excel in the design department of a core engineering company.

Luckily, my employers thought the same for me, and offered to sponsor a part-time post-graduation degree at IIT Bombay if I could secure admission. With my GATE score which was mercifully still valid, I applied and was selected as a part-time student for the M.Tech. (Aerospace – Structures) course at IIT Bombay.

By this time, I wanted to be an Aircraft Designer. I loved conceptual design of aircrafts and had acquired a maniacal love for aircrafts of all kinds. I noticed that for an industry of our size, India had pitifully few trained and practising Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) designers. I extended my Masters degree into a Ph.D., for developing a design methodology for certain highly specialised classes of UAVs and urged my employers to take on challenging UAV design projects. This is what I currently work on.

How did you get your first break?

I think my first big break was being placed as a Design Engineer at L&T as my first job through campus placement. The atmosphere, work ethic and kind of colleagues you are exposed to in an organisation at the very early stages of your career mould your thinking for a lifetime. L&T was an ideal place to begin, and nearly a decade on, I’m still learning with them.

What were some of the challenges you faced in your career? How did you address them?

Aerospace was my dream career, but during my Master’s, I found that its approach was quite different from Mechanical Engineering. Almost everything in Mechanical Engineering was tangible, testable and provable, but the world of Aerospace had its fair share of thumb-rules, uncertainties and industry best practices, because it’s expensive to conduct tests or simulate data. Besides, Aerospace involves a LOT of mathematics and calculus, which I learnt to love much later in life. The learning curve was steep and demanded a lot of hard work, but it was very rewarding.

Doing a part-time Masters was a very good decision in terms of technical development, because I could easily decide what courses to take and almost immediately apply what I learnt. However, it was uphill to study and manage full office responsibilities at the same time. Good time management is essential for this and I’m still trying to figure out the best way! I also maintain hobbies like playing music, learning new languages and blogging, which help in keeping me sane.

Where do you work now?

I currently work with L&T Defence as an Aircraft Designer and Airframe Engineer, specializing in Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV). My work involves designing UAV to fulfil mission objectives for my customers. I develop the concept of operations, formulate mission profiles and perform aerodynamics calculations for building the appropriate aircraft to fulfill this. I also work on the analysis and optimisation of airframe structural components. Since every gram saved is a benefit for the aircraft, I work with fairly specialised materials like fibre-reinforced composites.

As part of my Ph.D. research, I am also formulating a methodology for design of High Altitude Long Endurance (HALE) UAV, using span morphing technology. Since this approach has never been used before for increasing the flight endurance of HALE UAV, I am exploring the science behind it and hope to have some results directly useful for the industry at the end of my research.

Under the guidance and mentorship of IIT professors, I developed skills in practical aircraft design, control and stability analysis, aircraft optimisation and flight dynamics.

Apart from this, while designing a complex system like an aircraft, it is useful to be a jack-of-all-trades. You need to know a little bit about how all aircraft subsystems work. Taking diverse coursework throughout my engineering studies definitely helped.

I must also emphasise the skills that most hard-core researchers tend to ignore… You have to learn how to communicate your ideas effectively, write attractive project proposals and make pitches for funding your ideas.

Would you be able to explain practical applications of your work on UAVs in the real world? 

Historically, a lot of initial aircraft research funding occurs in the defence sector, but over time, the benefits and technologies trickle down to the public domain. Large UAV have been around in defence for decades now, but with miniaturisation of electronics, there’s been a surge in smaller hand-launched UAV like quad-rotors for day-to-day applications like film-making and home delivery. Globally, many countries are in advanced stages of developing their UAV regulations and the industry is moving faster than ever to keep pace with the boom that’s about to happen when these regulations are implemented. Who knows where UAV technology will end up… Maybe some day you might take an Uber UAV to your office! While use-cases for UAV could be many (the imagination is the limit!), strong engineers with good fundamental knowledge are needed to address the technical challenges. Building something that flies is no longer enough. The UAV engineer of the future will design based on system reliability, public safety, commercial viability, ease of operation and environmental sustainability as well. It’s a whole new universe waiting to be explored. 

Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!

You never forget your first! I am greatly influenced by the work of legendary aircraft designer Burt Rutan and my first aircraft design was a lifting-canard UAV which I named T-UAV. It was the first design on which I had applied all my engineering knowledge and I had implemented Burt Rutan’s signature canard concept. It was quite a unique design choice for that mission but it looked outlandish, almost bizarre, and hence drew a fair bit of surprise from many. But I was thrilled when experts reviewed the design and gave it their stamp of approval that it was, indeed, a good design. Ultimately T-UAV was never built because I fell into the same trap as Burt Rutan… the simple fact that the world is just not yet ready to accept an outlandish-looking canard aircraft! I have designed several more successful (and more unconventional) UAV after this one, but this design remains closest to my heart for its sheer daring and innovation.

Your advice to students based on your experience?

Follow your Passion: Decide what excites you and promise yourself to be worthy of the profession you aspire to. Work hard towards it and make it a way of life.

Update Yourself: Sit yourself down from time-to-time to logically take stock of your current situation. Think about how best to achieve what you want to do with your life. Don’t be afraid to update the course of your education / career if your interests change.

Branch Out: Explore fields outside your area of interest. Careers of the future are multi-disciplinary. You never know how a particular skill will help you later.

Go with the Flow: When things don’t go as planned, don’t be disheartened. Sometimes, opportunities lie in unexpected places. All you have to do is keep your eyes open to them!

Future Plans?

Life is an adventure. Who knows what the future holds?