There is no greater source of inspiration for an aerospace engineer when your workplace overlooks an operational commercial airport with large and small airplanes taking off and landing all day.
Pranav Hosangadi, our next pathbreaker, works as Aerodynamics and Performance Engineer at Beta Technologies, a company that develops eVTOL aircrafts to carry cargo or passengers, and a rechargeable battery module that can supply the immense power needed to lift an aircraft and payload.
Pranav talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about his childhood ambition of becoming an aerospace engineer, and not only fulfilling it but also getting to fly smaller airplanes because Beta provides free flight instruction to all employees .
For students, no dream is big enough to remain unfulfilled, as long as your determination keeps up with your dreams !
Pranav, can you talk a little bit about your growing up years?
I grew up in Mumbai and had a very middle-class upbringing. My mother was a teacher, my father a software engineer. I always had an interest in science and mathematics, and I couldn’t have asked for more support from my parents – they would regularly get me books and encyclopedias to help me learn more information; they bought our family’s first computer when I was 7; they would allow me to disassemble and reassemble many devices to see how they worked. I’ve always been fascinated by planes (and my mother told me that needing glasses precluded me from being a pilot; it doesn’t).
I also loved playing many sports – particularly cricket and football (soccer). My eyes went wide with wonder when I learned that the ball swings or takes a curved trajectory due to aerodynamics! And then learning that Formula 1 involves aerodynamics too, I knew from a very young age that I wanted to be an aerodynamics engineer.
Simultaneously, I was very interested in computers, so my father (himself a software engineer) introduced me to programming in my teens. My first actual big computer project was to build a website for a small company owned by one of my father’s colleagues.
What did you do for graduation/post-graduation?
I did my BE in Mechanical Engineering from Univ. of Mumbai / Rajiv Gandhi Institute of Technology.
Like many Indian engineering hopefuls, I took the IIT JEE after 12th, with the intention of getting into the Aerospace Engineering program at IIT Madras, IIT Bombay or IIT Kharagpur. I didn’t do well enough for the program at any of the IITs, so I decided to join RGIT in the mechanical department and try for an MTech (GATE) in aerospace at one of the IITs. At this point, doing a PhD was never on my radar. A lot of people (A LOT) tried to convince me that I should just do a CS degree and get a higher paying job right after graduation (and I was good with computers anyway), but I’m glad I didn’t listen to them, nor did my parents pressure me.
I did my MS and PhD in Aerospace Engineering from North Carolina State University.
Tell us, how did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and cool career?
My parents have always been very encouraging and supportive of my educational and career goals. I would also like to mention my teachers, both in school and in college, who nurtured my interest in science, as well as Michael Schumacher because of whom I stumbled onto Formula 1 at the age of 10. He dominated the sport back then 🙂
By my third year of engineering, I received feedback from many professors that I might do well in a career in research. This led me to take the GRE and apply for grad schools in the US. After some soul searching, I picked three areas of research that interested me, and based on that, I picked five schools whose faculty had at least a couple of professors that worked in these areas. I hadn’t made up my mind about committing yet another 6+ years of my post-graduate life to a PhD (academics), so I decided to apply to only MS programs, and kick the PhD decision further down the road. Of the schools that I applied to and received admits from, NC State fit my research interests best.
A semester into arriving at NC State, I started working with Prof. Ashok Gopalarathnam on some problems his research group was facing with their work, and later decided that I liked this research and that I would like to join the group. I decided to do a PhD because as I progressed through my MS research, I realized (and was told of) the difference that a good relationship with your advisor and a well-funded research plan make to a PhD student’s mental health, and since I already had these things at my research group at NCSU, I stayed for a PhD instead of applying to other colleges.
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 reached the end of school, the IITs seemed like the best option for me since (a) I wasn’t very well-informed about the options outside India, and (b) my family wouldn’t have been able to afford an undergraduate education abroad anyway.
Well, I screwed up in IIT JEE and couldn’t get into the IITs in an area that I was interested in, and I didn’t want to move too far from home for a non-IIT college. So, I settled for the next best option – to do a Bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering at MU/RGIT, since aerospace engineering is after all just a specialized version of mechanical, and I could always try for a Masters in AE.
During this time, I started taking on some more programming projects for acquaintances, and finally started doing freelance programming jobs after college, and my interest in aerospace waned a bit. I started to wonder if I made the wrong choice by picking mechanical engineering.
Then, late in my third year I started a SAE Aero Design team that was more aligned with my aerospace interests. As the team lead for the aerodynamics team, it was my team’s job to make sure the aircraft we would design could generate enough lift to complete the mission given the low weight and engine power restrictions. This was when I really started to understand what this kind of work involved, and I proved to myself that I loved it.
I was very lucky to receive the admit from NC State for grad school, and to find a great advisor and a funded project to work on for my research. The members of the “Applied Aerodynamics Lab” worked on a variety of projects attempting to add value to simple theoretical or numerical aerodynamic models by extending the conditions under which such models would fail to provide an accurate prediction. Usually, this would involve obtaining a lot of data about the behaviour of the system in a wind tunnel or from high-fidelity simulations (Computational Fluid Dynamics, CFD) that solve the differential equations of fluid mechanics to a higher degree of accuracy and with fewer assumptions than the simple models that we were augmenting.
Specifically, my research involved obtaining rapid predictions for the aerodynamic forces and moments on aircraft with sweptback wings. For my MS, I started out with data that can be quickly and easily obtained from two-dimensional CFD solutions, and developed a transformation for this data to better represent the behavior of 3D wings.
While starting a PhD, you usually need to write a proposal for a research idea that is then evaluated by your advisory committee. I must admit that I got off easy on this front – I didn’t need to write a proposal for my committee because I had already written a MS thesis on the same topic, and the idea for the PhD was to simply extend this work to make it more predictive. This involved running CFD simulations for lots of different wing geometries, extracting data from these huge terabyte-sized solutions, and reducing that data to observe patterns among all the different simulated cases. I automated this process using a variety of scripts in bash (a command prompt for Linux computers), and MATLAB and Python (programming languages to process data exported by the bash scripts). Then, I went on to write my own code in Python that would solve some simplified equations of fluid flow and augment them with the observations from CFD solutions. This allowed us to obtain highly accurate force and moment predictions for the aircraft, comparable to the high-fidelity CFD solutions, in less than 1% of the time it takes.
In addition to my theoretical and computational research, I was also able to perform experiments in the wind tunnel to help colleagues in my lab, and to teach undergraduate students. A wind tunnel is just a big tube with a big fan on one end. In the middle of the tube, you can put a scale model of whatever you want to test. Then, you turn on the fan, and the wind created by the fan applies forces on the test object which we can then measure.
Before I finished my PhD, I naively believed that my research experience would be enough to help me land a job at a big aviation company such as Boeing or Airbus. This did not turn out to be the case – many companies are restricted to who they can hire due to military contracts and export controls. And by the time I was finished at NCSU, the COVID pandemic was brewing. The pandemic made finding a job very challenging, so I decided to widen my search area to data-science and similar roles that involved using data to model real-world phenomena (much like what I had done during my PhD, but not restricted to aerodynamics)
I started working at a small company called The DEI Group where they used such techniques to provide prognostic and diagnostic information to operators of heavy machinery such as hydro turbines, etc. This was during the height of the pandemic, and I was referred to the position by a former colleague from my research lab at NCSU. My experience in programming was certainly very helpful with this job, since I was primarily tasked with developing predictive models and machine health metrics, and implementing these algorithms in the software developed by DEI. This work was quite like what one might do in a data science role, and not directly related to aerospace. However, my experience in developing predictive models from data was helpful.
Finally, I just started at Beta Technologies, where we design and build electric Vertical Take-Off and Landing (eVTOL) aircraft and battery recharging stations to extend the electric transportation revolution to the sky.
How did you get your first break?
I’m not sure what counts as a break – Receiving an offer to work on something I have dreamed about since I was a child? Having a friend who could refer me to a job at the height of the pandemic? Doing well in my first semester of grad school so that I’d be allowed to work on interesting research problems with a really cool and smart group? Receiving enough sponsorships to be able to build and fly our aircraft at the SAE Aero Design competition? Winning freelancing contracts that would help me hone my programming skills? My father convincing his friend to let an inexperienced 15-year-old build his company’s website? Being blessed with teachers and parents who would encourage my inquisitiveness instead of stifle it?
I think it’s important to recognize one’s privilege – in my case it was being born into a family that valued education and could financially afford to send me to school.
What were some of the challenges you faced? How did you address them?
Not getting into a college of my choice – I chose an alternative route that would still allow me a chance to pursue my passion.
Doing a PhD is HARD! With the long hours, low pay, constant ebbs and flows of research, potential isolation from others as you work on your project, and many other challenges, it is important to prioritize self-care and recognize that your mental and physical health is important, and you can’t do anything if you don’t have your mind and body in order.
Where do you work now? What is your role as Aerospace Engineer?
I just started at Beta Technologies. Beta Technologies is developing an eVTOL aircraft to carry cargo or passengers, a rechargeable battery module that can supply the immense power needed to lift a 3000kg aircraft and payload, and a battery charging setup that can charge these batteries quickly. Basically, Beta is kind of like Tesla but for an aircraft.
What problems do you solve?
At Beta, my role as Aerodynamics and Performance Engineer involves a wide range of responsibilities, from helping design the shape of the aircraft’s propellers and wings, to increase lift and thrust and minimise drag by performing CFD simulations to model air flow, to supporting wind-tunnel and flight tests on scale models and the real aircraft by processing the data collected in these tests and correlating them with design parameters.
What skills are needed in your role? How did you acquire the skills?
A good understanding of fluid dynamics, which comes from having a solid handle on the mathematics that can be used to describe them, and the numerical methods that can be used to solve these differential equations.
I learned this during my time in grad school – as a part of graduate courses, and by asking lots of questions and reading lots of research papers.
A good level of comfort with programming/scripting also helps. Any research that involves a significant amount of data collection and processing i.e., most Science, Technology, Engineering, Math (STEM) research will benefit from being able to write programs that will reduce this data and allow you to draw conclusions.
What’s a typical day like?
I don’t really know since I started quite recently and haven’t had many days to know what’s typical yet. Ask me again in a month 🙂
So far, it has been a mixture of getting familiar with all the work that’s been done on the plane before, researching industry best-practices, writing code to automate the data extraction and processing stages of a CFD pipeline.
What is it you love about this job?
It lets me do work that makes my brain light up! I love the fact that my workplace overlooks an operational commercial airport and that I get to see large and small airplanes all day. Sometimes, I even get to fly smaller airplanes because Beta provides free flight instruction to all employees (even interns!). I love the intelligent and motivated people I work with who are enthusiastic and eager to improve the world.
How does your work benefit society?
Climate change is a massive threat to the standard of living that most of us have become used to, and it is imperative that we take it seriously. Carbon emissions due to transportation of people and cargo is a large part of our overall impact on the planet. The world is embracing the electric revolution that is happening with cars right now, and this is a sentiment I believe the aviation industry must adopt if we are to survive in a world that is increasingly moving away from fossil fuels.
Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!
My team designed and built a RC aircraft, and flew it at a student competition! This was a HUGE source of pride for all of us because we
- started the group in the college without much support from our professors
- designed, (and tested, flew, crashed, and repeated until it didn’t) a plane with NO prior experience and knowledge
- raised funds to help with building costs
- travelled to a new country (many of us for the first time), competed and had a blast doing it, while learning a whole lot.
Your advice to students based on your experience?
- Don’t pick a career because someone pressurises you into it. Pick a career because YOU are interested in it.
- Learning how to talk/write about what you know in a way that effectively communicates what you want, is a very important skill
- Co-curricular activities are useful – they teach you a lot because doing something reinforces what you learned about doing the thing
- The people you work with are important to your enjoyment of your job.
I would like to continue learning and grow into an aerodynamics and flight dynamics expert