Urban Mobility is all set to change thanks to new aerodynamic approaches that will shape the design of next generation of aircrafts based on flight dynamics, clean technologies and cost effectiveness.

Tarandeep Singh, our next pathbreaker, Aircraft design and Aerodynamics leads at an Aviation Startup, works on Air Travel Technologies (Air Taxi) beyond the concept stage, and making sure that the next stage of design gets the aircraft closer to fulfilling practical requirements.

Tarandeep talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about the excitement of being a part of the innovation process and experiencing what it takes to make a new kind of aircraft safely fly, something that he will cherish for the rest of his life.

For students, the Aerospace field is undergoing rapid transformation with countless possibilities based on the principles of Aerodynamics and Fluid Mechanics. It doesn’t get anymore exciting than that !

Tarandeep, tell us about your background?

I was born and brought up in Chandigarh, where I stayed until my graduation. I did my schooling in a conventional school until 10th standard and then joined a college setup for 11th and 12th where attendance was not very strict so that we could attend tuitions for engineering exams post 12th standard. It was a hard time with a lot of anxiety about the future, but also excitement for all that was possible in the time ahead of us. I ended up joining Punjab Engineering College (PEC) in Chandigarh in the Aeronautical field for a BE program. I was always interested in mechanical things, mechanisms, intricate machines, destroying toys and putting them back together etc. So that basic wonder of the technical side was always there from the start, although I was never good when it came to scoring a high grade in related subjects!

Apart from technical interests, my hobbies never included anything that directly helped me refine my skills. Though I like playing music and a bit of sports, especially football, I never found them as hurdles in my career. I can now say that my work feels like yet another hobby, where problem solving is the main attraction. It was not so earlier, but keeping at it and focusing on the portion that excited me did help me a lot in building specific skill sets that are useful now.

My family is like any other. My dad made things for himself and our family from scratch when he came to Chandigarh in the early 70s. That has given me inspiration to make my own way. And my mother who has been my strength (and now my wife as well, who I met during my postgraduate program and who has supported me and my career decisions), has always urged me to follow my mind. Although it was not always easy, these basic things help build a foundation to base unconventional decisions and career paths on.

Currently I am an independent consultant in the field of aerospace and fluid mechanical design. My specialization is fluid dynamics (aerodynamics in particular) and heat transfer and I try to help individuals, organizations in solving problems and provide training in the field using relevant technical skill sets.

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

Initially, I wanted to take up mechanical specialization for my BE. During the counselling round for graduate admission, I missed the mechanical branch by a few seats and picked Aeronautical which was the closest field. Little did I know that this would be a turning point for me from where I have never looked back.

I completed my BE from PEC between 2003 and 2007 and by the time I was done, I was already interested in research. So I enrolled at the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore for an MSc in the Engineering program in the Aerospace department. I did my PhD in the same lab. I continued to work there even after my PhD until I moved out in 2019. 

My graduation was a typical academic program with minor and major projects, as well as industry internships that were useful. But for me, the next step was clearly research and I sort of did not connect the valuable experience of my BE days until I left IISc and started consulting on my own. Any exposure you have at that age stays with you and becomes a part of you and will help you in future for sure. In my opinion, that is the age to try out things and experience as many different aspects as possible without worrying about an immediate career path.

I spent a long time in IISc for the two degree programs and it was a major learning curve – partly due to some abnormal issues my work ran into that added a parallel learning curve from the usual, as well as the breadth of experience of research in a large experimental lab. My research topic was basically around measuring and trying to control skin friction heating in a high-speed flow (hypersonic) over a body. When a flow of air moves over a surface at great speed, the friction is so high that it can cause problems for the aircraft – for example the loose thermal insulation tile that led to the disastrous heating of the Columbia space shuttle during re-entry, leading to the accident where we lost Kalpana Chawla in 2003 (ironically, at the time I had little idea I was going to attend the same department in PEC as her and work in the exact field of high speed flows that was the problem in the accident).

My work in IISc involved designing experiments, setting up models for short duration wind tunnels, preparing sensors and instrumentation, executing the experiments, data analysis etc. Apart from that we did the design of tunnel parts, complicated mechanical design for model holding, nozzle design, part fabrication, worked with industry vendors, all of which was a great experience seeing industry involvement in research work in such fields. Although it is hard work and feels very disheartening at times when your effort doesn’t bear fruit as you expect it to, it does teach you two things – first, that research is not a set path that you can plan and execute. It must have its failures, its surprises and its lessons that make it worth it, and from where new ideas are born. Second, it is not a recommended path for someone who is not sure about this path. Especially for a PhD program, one has to be mentally ready to struggle a bit for a few years, all the while gaining an experience that is unmatched in terms of independent thinking and problem solving at various levels. It gives you a perspective in thinking in a certain way that changes the way you look at problems even in your own life.

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

My career path has never been a long-term dream coming to fulfilment. It has always been about the next step that I thought was right, and I have been lucky enough to have pulled it off on most occasions. There has always been the basic idea of what feels right to do for me, which I have tried to follow even at the expense of conventional wisdom. And I have to say, conventional wisdom shouldn’t always be disregarded, although this is something everyone has to figure out for themselves. 

My greatest influencers have been people around me who I have worked with. Our engineering batch was full of keen minds who really spurred each other on. One of my biggest influencers were my professors in IISc who really showed me how research sets your mind free from conventional ways of thinking, which was luring to me. So much so, that my decision to join a PhD program was made after a couple of months into my masters program, and I initially wanted to join academia as a professor myself. 

People in my family have always believed in me, although sometimes their faith has been tested by my career decisions. But overall, their constant support is something that was a key factor in taking an uncertain path to where I am now.

Mainly the researchers in my field, the quality of work that they have accomplished (and hence i aspire to), the impact that some of this work can have, the niche training of the aerospace field (at least in certain areas) – all things like that really have had an impact on my career path. For example, my specialization is aerodynamics and there is a well-known saying that aerodynamics is a dead field in aircraft design because there is nothing groundbreaking to discover, at least for regular, slow, commercial aircrafts. But over the past few years, there has been a sudden new wave of research on electric air taxis, or eVTOL (short for electric Vertical Take-Off and Landing) aircrafts that are all set to change urban mobility as we see it. So now there is a new generation of aircrafts that require us to take a fresh look at aerodynamics of new configurations. We don’t come across opportunities like this everyday.

How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Or how did you make a transition to a new career? Tell us about your career path

As I mentioned before, none of my career steps were ever planned well in advance. I was also not a typical outstanding student. I mention this because I want to convey that you can create your own unique path if you stick to your strengths, which may not always be clear and obvious – so you must try out things and discover them. When I started off, my approach was that of ‘what I found interesting’. It took me far enough, but not without doubts created by my lack of ambition in planning far, or the comparisons with people applying for internships in their second semester at college (mind you those people are also doing well) while you are just getting used to the new life. It has to be your own plan, although mentorship, good examples and wise advice really helps. Unfortunately, my case was one of not being seriously invested in learning and figuring out from experiences of others, and it has mostly worked for me.

I did actually try out one conventional path that many seemed to opt for at that time, and for good reasons. While I was completing my masters at IISc, I applied for PhD positions in US universities, given the advantages of a different work culture and more opportunities compared to the Indian aerospace market. I gave my GRE and TOEFL exams, and got selected at two universities – UIUC and IIT Chicago. But the bad news came from the US visa consulate who deemed my field of study in aerospace (hypersonics) problematic in providing me with a visa (for its potential defense applications). That was a turning point, but what it changed, I cannot tell because my motivation remained the same – to continue in aerospace research during my PhD. I have since acquired good research skills and techniques that have helped in advanced problem solving as well as a general thinking pattern that is suitable for breaking down problems to more approachable bits. That is mostly the effect of spending a lot of time solving genuine as well as surprising problems for a long but fulfilling PhD program.

During my time at IISc I had few opportunities to increase my exposure. For example, during my PhD, I was deputed from my lab to go and set up a facility and provide training to scientists in a DRDO lab (TBRL Chandigarh). That was a good experience to be able to learn to communicate my skills to an audience and contribute. Towards the end of my association at IISc, I was involved in my first consultancy project where I had the opportunity to go out of my comfort zone, learn a new skill and provide help for a startup (Kestrel Innovations, Bangalore) that needed to figure out aerodynamics of a body for a project. That was my first experience in taking up a solo problem outside my research and that built my confidence towards this kind of work scenario.

Finally, the best example of my work is my current association with Voyzon Aerospace – a startup that is aiming to develop and manufacture an amazing eVTOL air taxi. I have been working with them for almost two years in the capacity of contributing to the overall design and taking care of aerodynamics of the vehicle. This association arose from my creating a LinkedIn profile and the startup founders found me there. This part of my work is unique as I work in a team where I contribute to an overall work structure and not working alone. It is challenging work, very new and exciting, and the learning here is immense.

Apart from the examples above, I have worked for many clients, including HAL, private entities and corporates, universities (for training programs) and startups like Voyzon Aerospace. I have had many other partners/friends who have helped me in various stages and I have helped them as well when I can. You are mostly independent as a consultant, but it is good to have people who can complement your skills, because such partnerships expand your solution providing capabilities. It is incredible how things work out sometimes from nowhere, although much of my work relies heavily on building connections and keeping in touch with people. In consultancy, you must be able to reach out and inform the right people of your skillset. Rest is up to them to trust you to provide a solution to their problem, something that becomes a bit easier as you successfully continue to deliver results. That is what consultancy is in a nutshell – or at least what I think of it at the moment, I am pretty new to this.

How did you get your first break?

I think you can guess by now that the theme of my approach has been the lack of a focused one. But I keep saying this because in a way, having micro-focus on the next immediate task is one way of doing it, although I would advise against universal application of this strategy.

To answer this question more directly, my first break, whether it was during PhD or after that, came from people I knew. It was a matter of keeping my options open, and giving every opportunity that came my way a reasonable shot. I was lucky to have enough good opportunities at the right time, but the way I went about it, things could have gone either way. Just keeping an eye on any related avenue that provides an opportunity to improve your skills and learn to apply it, I think, is probably the most important factor if you look to be independently employed. The day you stop improving or learning, you might want to look for a stable job with a big company – something that one shouldn’t rule out (struggling to keep it light due to lack of emojis here).

What were the challenges you faced? How did you address them?

My greatest challenge was negotiating issues during my PhD. While doing a PhD, you are trying to find a solution to a problem in an uncertain scenario. But, at the base of it lies a foundation of known and dependable assumptions. In my case, some of those assumptions that I should have been able to take for granted were not so, which resulted in having to rebuild my foundation midway. But the main issue was figuring it out. My supervisor was instrumental in my passing this hurdle, but it was up to me to find a way out. And that I did by attempting to break down the problem to a level that made sense again. I was back on the main path by resolving issues step by step. I would like to say here that keeping calm and focusing on the issues and not worrying about the long term was probably the key, although it was not easy.

Another challenge that I have felt over the entire path of my career is the lack of detours and parallel paths in our system for any given career path. What I mean is that it is all very linear and you really find it hard to cope if you do not get the desired outcome or you realize that your initial motivations and assumptions do not hold true by the time you reach the next stage. I have felt that in my case, seeing how academia has changed so much from being a free-thinking place of new ideas to a business-like environment churning out results under a deadline, within a span of 10 years. This was the main reason for changing my mind midway to not becoming a professor anymore. I guess my way of handling things has been to keep an open mind and not reject parallel paths at any stage, and sometimes even going out and exploring options. It’s simple to say, but our system does not provide this training and support, because we are fixated on the end goal of a career rather than the ongoing journey (I have to stop this point here, before I go into philosophy).

Tell us about your current work 

Currently, I am mainly working for Voyzon Aerospace as one of the aircraft design and aerodynamics leads in the company. The kind of work we do right now is taking the design of the electric air taxi (called eVOTO) beyond the concept stage. We are working to make sure that the next stage of design gets the aircraft closer to fulfilling the design requirements –how the aircraft must be able to perform when it is manufactured and flown.

What problems do you solve?

At my level, I am constantly involved in performance, stability and aerodynamic analysis of the aircraft design. That involves a lot of reading, keeping up to date with latest research in the field, reading complementary technical topics, writing analysis codes, learning and using open source software for computations etc. It’s a lot of fun, especially when there is a scope to contribute to something groundbreaking, a new age technology. But at the same time, it is humbling to see how much work goes into such a project and the fact that my own contribution will be only a small (but hopefully important) portion. The main skills needed here are of constant learning and application. Since we are not a big team of required industry experts at the moment, we must push ourselves and at the same time be very cautious since there is little guidance to go by.

What skills are needed for your job? How did you acquire the skills?

The skills required for any consultancy work involves quick learning and figuring out a solution, I have mainly obtained these skills from my PhD program. A PhD program prepares you in this aspect without mercy (to put it dramatically). You are constantly presented with new information, and the other part of the job is to make sure that you know a lot, if not all, of that you need to know to proceed to do something new. All these aspects train you for such scenarios.

A typical day, which is mostly work from home (even more so in the current situation), is either of general skill building activity or a focused solution for a problem at hand. The first is a very relaxed background activity that involves (again) reading, trying new things out, watching informative videos, preparing sample problems and solutions for experience etc, at a normal pace. There are no working hours, so it can be done as and when I feel like. Some of the time also goes into looking at potential clients, talking to people, discussing problems etc. The second part is when there’s a job at hand with a deadline – this is more or less when you take on all problems till the work is done. Sometimes it takes lots of hours per day to get the work done in time, at other times it is done smoothly without hassle, depending on how far from your core skills does the problem take you in the search for a solution. And this moderate roller-coaster is what I really like. Every day can be different, and sometimes it is the same for weeks. Sometimes you really have to work out a routine, and other times you have no time to worry about it. It is sometimes difficult to accommodate change of personal plans given that working hours are not strictly constrained, but it also provides ample freedom at times to do other things at your pace. It’s a nice mix and I love this freedom, apart from the work itself.

How does your work benefit society? 

In my case, and the work I directly do, it is hard to point out a direct connection with benefit for society. In most cases I am helping to improve a technology, a system that is a part of a bigger system, or making something work better. So mostly it is in increasing the efficiency of systems that I can say indirectly leads to better systems, better organizations and thus (fingers crossed) a better society. It’s an attempt to justify, but I guess it is valid. But I will say, some of the projects, like the electric air taxi, actually have benefits that are more direct. The electric air taxi, if operational at the scale projected, will be a clean mode of transportation with no polluting emissions at all. Though one can debate the final cost of the electric vehicle is not absolutely clean, it still helps to keep the cities clean if the source of power generation can be either made cleaner or renewable. So, there’s that to slightly brag about, I guess.

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

Well, there are two examples I can give here, for different reasons. First was during my PhD. As I said, I was stuck at one point in my PhD, where a fundamental assumption that a certain equipment will provide a reliable output was under question after a lot of troubleshooting. After a long search for the problem, we still were not sure if our latest culprit was indeed creating the problem, especially when you start questioning the many things that you assume are fine. So, I had to really dig in deep and find a way to conclusively test the situation. For that I had to rig up an experiment in an unconventional fashion and use some innovative combination of equipment to produce output that narrowed down the problem and clearly proved the source of the issue. Of course, it was followed by a painful process of correcting the issue in the equipment, testing it and then finally using it in the main PhD work, but the process of going out of the way to solve an interesting puzzle was really memorable for me.

The second is what I am doing currently. In the past two years itself, I have been involved in a memorable process of aircraft design. Even though there is uncertainty at this point if we will ever see this aircraft fly, being a part of this process and experiencing what it takes to make a new kind of aircraft safely fly, is something I will cherish for the rest of my life.

Your advice to students based on your experience?

I have tried to answer the previous questions with the theme of this question in mind, so please bear with me if I sound like a broken record here. I guess my advice is more on the side of ‘what else is possible and how’, rather than ‘this is how you achieve your dreams’, if you get what I mean. I would say that focus on the immediate goal more than the final goal, because as you grow from this early stage, the final goal may change a lot. But the immediate goal, done well and with added advice of keeping your options open and trying out various things, will guarantee a skill set that will serve you at some point in your life, and help you discover your main career path (if there is such a thing). In my opinion this constant process is more important than setting a careful long-term goal. Don’t get me wrong – there’s no problem in setting a long-term dream and working fully towards achieving it. If you can achieve that with little changes to your plan, there’s nothing like it. But most often than not, we get lost in the milestones that tell us that we are progressing on the path, rather than figure out the fundamental motivation that has led us on that path in the first place. If we figure that out, we can stop to look around, discover something new and even better in the present, rather than waiting for a glorious future. As the Zen saying goes – life is an* eternal now (and here I must stop again, as previously warned about my philosophizing tendencies).

Future Plans?

I have to be consistent here I guess (emojis sorely missed here again) for all the advice that I have given above. For now, my plan is to see how the consultancy in general goes, and work with Voyzon Aerospace in particular. We are on a long path with aircraft design, which is uncertain and risky, but very exciting and rewarding. So, I am open to changes in the future, anything that meets my criteria of independent working and an interesting work routine. On those lines, I have a plan to try out an online training course which I am working on. Maybe sometime in the coming future I will have a go at that.