Urban Air Mobility (UAM) is the next frontier in air travel, with a vision to connect people, places and material without traffic congestions while also reducing the carbon footprint.

Ashwath Ramesh, our next pathbreaker, Flight Control Engineer at Volocopter GmbH (Bavaria, Germany), is responsible for flight control software development, flight testing and overall development of eVTOL (Electric Vertical Take-Off and Landing) aircrafts and eVTOL transition aircrafts.

Ashwath talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about how his growing interest in the field of Aerospace and Motorsports led him to the field of aerodynamics which is the heart and soul of flight development.

For students, working in a disruptive sector with many unknowns gives you the opportunity to grow and excel in this domain by taking on challenges and learning from them !

Ashwath, what were your early years like? 

I grew up in Cochin, Kerala where I did all my schooling and my graduation. During the time I was at school, I understood that I was very keen on topics related to physics and mathematics. And as time passed, I picked up a lot of interest in programming as well, which has worked out to be helpful for my career till now. Along with these academic interests, I used to spend quality time playing football, badminton as well as swimming. I also learnt and practiced playing the violin for over 5 years. My father is a company secretary and my mother is the lady of the house and both of them supported and advised me all the way to pursue my passion and interests. 

I always had a fascination towards engineering and in particular, towards aircrafts. Over time, I also developed a fascination for Formula One which then made me realize that engineering domains in F1 and Aerospace have a lot in common. I made a decision that I would specialize in Aerospace/Motorsports for my post graduation, but will take up a mechanical engineering degree for graduation. This opened up the horizon for me to explore different opportunities before choosing what to pursue for the better part of my career. 

What did you do for graduation/post graduation? 

I did my graduation in Mechanical Engineering at Rajagiri School of Engineering and Technology, Cochin. This gave me the platform to get acquainted with the many disciplines within mechanical engineering and skewed my interests towards fluid mechanics, aerodynamics, aerospace etc. (you get the point where I am headed with this list). I was convinced that I wanted to pursue a career in either Aerospace or Motorsports since they are industries at the forefront of technology and were my passion as well. 

After graduation, I wanted to take a break from studying and hence, I took up one of the offers of employment I received through campus placement drives. I worked for two years in Mytrah Energy India Pvt. Ltd as a mechanical engineer. 

I left the company after two years to pursue my post-graduation in Aerospace Engineering. I enrolled in a joint master’s degree program offered by Technical University of Munich (TUM) and Nanyang Technological University (NTU). The coursework was based in Singapore where I had to choose from subjects offered by NTU and TUM. For the subjects offered by TUM, professors used to fly in from Munich to teach us. This was a really good opportunity to experience two different universities that are amongst the best in the world. I then moved to Munich where I finished my master thesis at TUM main campus. 

What were some of the factors that led you to such an offbeat, unconventional and unique career? 

From my childhood, I had this fascination for aircrafts, so much so that I really wanted to become a pilot. This passion is still very much alive in me and is growing stronger by the day. 

My masters program in aerospace engineering and the courses I chose in this course played a key role in getting me to where I am right now. 

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 

Engineering was always the career I wanted to pursue. In particular, I was interested in learning about machines and their physics. Like I had explained earlier, it was a straightforward choice for me to study mechanical engineering for my undergraduation in order to explore the different domains within this vast field. I also saw it as an opportunity to pursue my passion in aerospace/motorsports or a different domain. During the time of my Bachelor’s degree I definitely had a growing interest in the field of aerodynamics which made me decide that I wanted to work in the field of Aerospace or Motorsports where aerodynamics is the heart and soul of development. 

Once I was clear about what I wanted to do for my master’s, I also wanted to take a break from studies. So I took up a job in Mytrah Energy India Pvt Ltd through the campus placement drive. I worked as a mechanical engineer in the wind power project sites in India for two years. I was working closely with General Electric in our Wind Power project sites where I was handling the inspection, installation and logistics of the wind turbine generators (WTG). I was part of the installation of 120 WTGs during my time at the company. Apart from improving my technical skills, this job helped me immensely to improve my occupational skills. After two years at this job, I decided to move on to my plan of pursuing my master’s degree. As mentioned earlier, I enrolled for the joint aerospace engineering program offered by Technical University of Munich and Nanyang Technological University.

I explored the many verticals within aerospace engineering by choosing various subjects for my coursework. However, I had chosen a majority of subjects from the aerodynamics stream due to my interests. To gain more application knowledge in aerodynamics, I started doing a part time internship for nine months at the Energy Research Institute at Nanyang Technological University. Here I was performing CFD simulations to understand the Fluid Structure Interactions and the hydrodynamics of floating solar panel structures on the open ocean. It was during this time that my courses in Flight System Dynamics and Flight Control Systems were scheduled. These courses offered by the Institute of Flight System Dynamics from TUM were career changing for me. These courses introduced me to the very interesting and cool topics of Flight Control Systems. What also pulled me towards these topics is their affinity to aerodynamics, it was like the best of both worlds for me. 

After finishing my coursework, I took up a master’s thesis offer at the Institute of Flight System Dynamics at TU Munich. I moved to Munich for my masters thesis where I worked on novel flight control algorithms like nonlinear flight control algorithms and adaptive flight control algorithms.

My thesis was fundamentally an evaluation of how effective the controlled dynamic behavior of an aircraft is, when using certain novel flight control algorithms based on the method of Incremental Nonlinear Dynamic Inversion. Flight control algorithms are basically mathematical relations based on the physical equations of motion of the aircraft, certain sensor measurements that portray the current aircraft motion and the pilot inputs that represent the desired aircraft motion. They run in real time on the flight controller processors to calculate the required actuator/motor commands for a desired motion of the aircraft based on the pilot commands (in case of piloted flights) or based on a computer (for UAVs). Simply put, the flight control laws help achieve the desired stable behavior of the aircraft safely and effectively with minimum effort from the pilot even in unfavorable environmental conditions (disturbances/turbulence). Different control laws have different properties and the objective of my thesis was to investigate such properties of some novel control techniques based on the aforementioned control algorithms. 

Having gained a lot of practical experience in flight control algorithms during my masters thesis, I was sure beyond doubt that designing and engineering flight control systems is what I wanted to do in my career. 

Towards the end of my master thesis, I joined as an intern for flight control law development at Volocopter GmbH. The role for which I joined as an intern was primarily in flight control law development and it was a perfect transition for me into the industry after my masters thesis. It gave me the platform to implement the knowledge of flight controls I gained during my master thesis in a real-life industrial setting. After my internship for 6 months, I continued at Volocopter as a full time flight control engineer in the VoloConnect team. This was and is an exciting opportunity for me since the Urban Air Mobility sector is a rapidly growing and innovative field in Aerospace engineering. Working at the forefront of technology especially in Aerospace is my passion and this is the perfect platform for me to explore this. 

How did you get your first break? 

My first break into the industry after my Bachelor’s degree was through a campus recruitment drive. And after my master’s degree, I got my internship at Volocopter by actively searching on company websites and LinkedIn, and this is what I would consider my major break which led me to where I am right now. I was also told about this specific opportunity by my masters thesis supervisor from TUM. 

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

Challenge 1: Finding a relevant job during the Covid crisis was not easy. I was lucky enough to get an internship in the topic of my interest. And since I am part of a small team, I have responsibilities on multiple fronts where I had a steep learning curve. It took a lot of commitment and dedication to step up to the challenges which helped me to continue as a full time employee at Volocopter. 

Challenge 2: I was completing my masters thesis while also working as a full time intern at Volocopter. I had to take this opportunity since it was very exciting, but I had to do parallel work on my thesis. Managing time and effort was very crucial at this stage and I see this as one of the biggest challenges I faced in my master’s program.

Where do you work now? What problems do you solve? 

I currently work as a Flight Control Engineer for the VoloConnect team at Volocopter GmbH in Munich. Volocopter is an aerospace company that is one of the front runners in bringing Urban Air Mobility (UAM) to life. We are into the design and production of eVTOL (Electric Vertical Take-Off and Landing) aircrafts to serve as air taxis in the UAM transport sector (something like the Jetsons cartoon :)) with a vision to connect people, places and material without traffic congestions while also reducing the carbon footprint. VoloConnect in particular is a product of Volocopter which is an eVTOL transition aircraft capable of doing vertical take-off and landing like a multi-rotor aircraft/helicopter and also has the capability to fly as an airplane with the help of wings. 

As a flight control engineer in a relatively small and dynamic team, my primary responsibilities include flight control software development, flight testing and overall development of eVTOL aircrafts and eVTOL transition aircrafts. Like any aerospace engineer, as flight control engineers, the whole team is responsible for making the aircraft fly safely and efficiently. We build flight critical software and avionics hardware to help achieve the highest safety levels and performance levels. 

I lead the flight control law development team. Flight control laws as explained earlier assist the pilot to achieve the desired motion of the aircraft in a stable, safe and efficient manner with a minimum pilot workload and maximum passenger comfort. They are a fundamental part of the flight control system software design which is responsible for many aspects of aircrafts, like stable flight behavior, good handling qualities of the aircraft and most importantly, for the safe and efficient dynamic behavior of the aircraft. 

What skills are needed in your role? How did you acquire the skills? 

The key technical skills required for the job are good fundamental knowledge in control theory and aircraft dynamics. It’s also very important to have good computer programming skills since my job is primarily software development. Hands on attitude and willingness to learn is key since it helps to advance in the role very quickly. 

I acquired these technical skills during my master’s program and during my internship. And as is true with any other job, there are many other occupational skills that are important to succeed in this challenging industry. 

What’s a typical day like? 

A typical day involves lots of programming, talking with other team members to identify requirements for the aircraft and brainstorming to find the most effective solutions. Very often, a day at work also includes testing and flying aircrafts to test software, hardware etc. Such a typical day also involves having a lot of fun while doing what we do in this challenging environment. 

What is it you love about this job? 

I love the challenges that come with this job since as a company we are trying to be the first to the market. Since an eVTOL aircraft and the UAM sector is relatively new, there are many unknowns and this is very exciting to me. The job also gives me the perfect platform to grow and excel in this domain. Like most jobs in Germany, this job also offers the perfect work-life balance and I consider this to be a very important element while choosing a job. 

How does your work benefit society? 

With climate change and increasing levels of pollution, I am very happy that as a company we are minimizing our carbon footprints and we are developing solutions to these serious problems. An electric aircraft that is designed to be a taxi solves multiple issues relating to this topic. 

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

It is always very rewarding when I see the software developed by me and my team being flown on the aircraft safely. It becomes even more special when the pilot gives positive feedback about the flight behavior.

Your advice to students based on your experience? 

I think it’s important to understand where your interests lie and what makes you happy in the long term. And it is ok if you try a few times before getting an understanding and it’s also ok if your interests change, but ultimately the important point is to have a clear view. 

After having this understanding, work towards your goal and try to get ahead of the crowd by going the extra mile. 

While choosing a job, it’s also important to assess the work-life balance and not just the opportunity. 

Most important advice: Don’t forget to have fun while doing all this! 

Future Plans? 

I want to evolve as a flight control system expert and broaden my knowledge and gain expertise in this domain.