Despite the innovative nature of the aerospace industry, radical change is rare. There has always been a steady and consistent focus on research and development to make air travel safer !

Zaid Ayaz Janjua, our next pathbreaker, works as Systems Engineer at Lilium eAircraft GmbH in Weßling (Germany), a startup that develops sustainable, high-speed air mobility through its electric vertical take-off and landing aircrafts.

Zaid talks to  Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about his PhD focused on the formation of ice on aircraft wings and his work towards developing the world’s first “smart” anti-ice coatings.

For students, the field of Aerospace is at an exciting juncture, requiring solutions that would usher in a new generation of sustainable, safe and energy-efficient aircrafts.

Zaid, can you tell us a little bit about your background?

Boisterous and playful from the very beginning, showing no interest in any activity other than sports. That would be a fitting description of my childhood. Building LEGO was challenging, interesting and above all, allowed me to create scenes to my liking. A hardcore Arsenal fan from 1997 onwards, life for me was never meant to be run of the mill.

My family is by all senses highly-educated, but I was never truly impressed by the degrees that my parents held. Even my grandparents were graduates of the 1950s but I appreciated their personalities, approach toward life and their affection far more than their job titles. 

My father is an IIT – Bombay alumnus and spent his career in the merchant navy as a chief engineer. My mother is a doctor who switched from being an anesthetist to a psychotherapist later on in life.

I was born in Mumbai and spent the early part of my childhood sailing with my mom and dad to Japan and South America. At the age of four, I moved to Hong Kong. My primary school (Quarry Bay School) was a member of the English Schools Foundation network and I was exposed to critical thinking and classmates from all around the world at an early age. Thus arose a life-long appreciation of diversity on this planet and the urge to understand as many fellow citizens as possible in a lifetime. I spent a year at my secondary school in Hong Kong (South Island School) prior to moving back to India for my 8th standard onwards at Learner’s Academy (ICSE), Mumbai.

To be honest, my interests were rather fluttering from an early age and largely influenced by my favourite places or movies. I had a passion for wildlife and wanted to become an orca trainer after visiting Ocean Park in Hong Kong on multiple occasions. When I watched the movie ´Border´, I wanted to join the army but Jim Carrey´s hilarious turn in ´Liar Liar´ shifted my thinking toward the lucrative profession of a corporate lawyer. Cricket was my great extra-curricular passion and after representing Hong Kong at the junior levels, there was nothing more on my mind than taking up the sport as a full-time profession. When I moved back to India, I pondered about becoming a translator as I was fascinated to hear different languages at my friends` homes in Hong Kong throughout my childhood. All in all, everything apart from becoming an engineer crossed my mind! 

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

I completed a Bachelors in Chemical Engineering from D.J. Sanghvi College of Engineering and a Masters in Environmental Engineering from the University of Nottingham (UK). In the year 2017, I was awarded a PhD in Civil Engineering titled ´Ice Accretion on Aerofoils´ also from the University of Nottingham (UK).

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

Even after completing three consecutive degrees related to engineering, I would still classify myself as an ´accidental engineer´. I am a peoples´ person. People are my true passion and my career choices were initially defined by circumstances but later inspired by individuals. In India, we are all aspiring engineers or doctors. This has been ingrained since generations and primarily driven by the financial stability of such a career choice as well as the social respect it commands. I am a firm believer in Steve Jobs´ famous Stanford speech where he spoke about connecting the dots looking backward. It was initially tough during my undergraduate degree to see where my career was heading. Rote learning and regurgitated tuition classes were neither inspiring nor giving me a semblance of a career path.

It was at the start of my Master’s degree in the UK when I began to understand (once again) that I had been living in a bubble and the world is very competitive with endless possibilities and opportunities for those with a natural curiosity. The choice of environmental engineering was based more on my love for the University campus rather than a true interest in the course modules. I believe that intuition and gut feeling is much more important than a brand name or a fancy degree. During the course, I had the great fortune of getting to know and be guided by Dr. Barbara Turnbull, a member of the University’s academic staff. She was an inspirational teacher who had the patience to understand my thinking and encouraged me to pursue further studies. My PhD degree was under her primary supervision and a rather unconventional topic which I had no idea about prior to reading a short abstract. Icing is rarely on the minds of Mumbaikars, as a natural phenomenon!

It was finally during my PhD that my exposure to the world of aerospace from an academic perspective, arose and so did my desire to contribute to its sustainable and innovative evolution. Although I was quite comfortable working in academia, I felt that shifting to the industry would really push me outside my comfort zone. Even after achieving limited laboratory results for the first two years of my PhD, I never gave up because of a desire that I had finally found my calling and needed to do everything to finally succeed in it.     

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

With regards to my PhD topic, it is an interesting story. I was actually in talks with my supervisor for a PhD related to gravity currents in coastal regions when I received an email on a friday asking me whether I would be interested in the icing topic. I had to respond by the weekend to apply as a prospective candidate. I had a three-hundred word abstract to read through and I made a few searches on Google. Again though, I was convinced because I had full faith in my supervisor. This is the most important thing when thinking about doing a PhD in comparison to the topic, as a your relationship with your supervisor is a key ingredient to success. 

Dassault Aviation was the industrial partner during the CleanSky1 ICECOAT project. The ICECOAT project aimed to minimize the accretion of run-back ice on aircraft wings by optimizing the configuration of novel icephobic coatings and the electro-thermal de-icing system. This was achieved by the understanding of the run-back icing process, the development of smart anti-icing coatings and the optimization and validation of mixed strategies.

The problem statement of my PhD was to develop a mathematical model and laboratory experiments to describe run-back icing on aerofoils during flight to support the ICECOAT project. In terms of real world implications, icing is a serious natural hazard in the world of aviation, and has contributed to several catastrophic accidents over the course of time. Understanding the physics of ice formation through mathematical and experimental investigations, can assist us in predicting the effects during actual flight and use of coatings can eventually find energy neutral means of mitigating the formation of ice and assisting in its removal. Although my topic was quite cross-disciplinary, I was under branch of civil engineering at the University of Nottingham because of my supervisor´s designation. 

In hindsight, pursuing internships would have been useful, though this was not a part of my thinking during my earlier studies. However, during my PhD, I realized the importance of transferable skills such as computational fluid dynamics and MATLAB that would help in a multitude of roles. Alongside this, the field of ice protection and detection systems is a highly specialized field within aerospace companies, since there are very few technical specialists with domain knowledge. It is one of those fields where everyone knows everyone.

How did you get your first break?

When it came to finding a job, I had two approaches. One approach was based on using websites such as LinkedIn and ResearchGate to find individuals that were also in a similar field. I would read their published research (in academia) or review topics of their interest/projects (for industry members). I would come up with a short proposal/ideas for the future and reach out to them directly. On many occasions, I received no response, but the individuals who did respond, were very helpful and remain in touch till today, always seeking new ways to potentially collaborate. It is a process of trial and error and finding your first job outside university can be challenging at any age with any qualification.

I was particularly excited by start-ups, especially the energy, uncertainty and the opportunity for fast learning and career growth. I happened to come across an opening for Lilium, an electric-vertical take off and landing jet company based in Weßling, Germany. To be honest, I hadn’t heard about VTOLs prior to coming across the job opening. A few interviews later, I was made an offer. I was extremely excited and consider it a privilege to work for such an exciting start-up in my first job outside University.

I joined Lilium as a Calculation Engineer in September 2018 focusing on ice prediction methodologies and numerical modelling of anti- and de-icing concepts. In October 2019, I was promoted to the Lead Engineer – Ice Protection System, responsible for owning the design, development and certification of the ice protection and detection system for the Lilium aircraft. Since September 2022, I have moved to the chief engineering office as a Systems Engineer working primarily on aircraft-level topics focused on safety of flight, prototype configuration definition, flight limitations, systems engineering, validation and verification.

I happened to come across the calculation engineer vacancy at Lilium when searching for icing related roles on the internet. These types of roles are very few in number due to the specialization of the topic. Initially, I was unsure whether it was relevant to my PhD research, having also spent some significant time testing icephobic coatings in a laboratory environment. However, I trusted my gut, applied and the rest as they say is history (or rather an evolution of my ongoing present!).

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

Moving from academia to industry has obvious challenges related to how you approach problems. While doing research, the focus is always on highly detailed reports, with a long lead time prior to arriving at a definitive conclusion. In the industry however, I learned to tailor the fidelity of the answer required to meet the need of the hour and subsequent phase in the aircraft development program. This was a steep learning curve and a definitive change in mindset.

Another major challenge, as my career developed, was on learning about an aircraft as a whole integrated machine with interfaces between various systems. Though understanding this was much more complex than a specialized topi, I achieved it through detailed reading and by working hands-on with dedicated technical specialists.

Finally, time. It is incredibly crucial to organize your time, especially with intensive deadlines in a start-up environment. PhDs occur over a longer time-scale, so dedicating focused time and planning your week ahead to cover all of your tasks is both imperative and important.

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

I work at Lilium eAircraft GmbH in Weßling, Germany as a Systems Engineer in the chief engineering office, working primarily on aircraft-level topics focused on safety of flight, prototype configuration definition, flight limitations, systems engineering, validation and verification. The key problem that I solve while working in an integrated manner with the rest of the engineering team is to ensure how can the prototype flight test aircraft achieve safety of flight, or in simpler terms, what do we need to do in terms of testing, analysis etc. to prove that the aircraft is safe to fly for the flight test crew. Additionally, I work on understanding which equipment is suitable for which flight test aircraft. This is defined in aerospace terms as prototype configuration definition. 

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

The key skills needed for this job include functions, requirements and regulation definition, project management and systems engineering. These skills were acquired by on the job practice along with ongoing specialized training courses.

A typical day will include an early start, with time for answering emails and background reading. This will include meetings with stakeholders, document preparation, as well as systems engineering work. I enjoy working in a collaborative manner with individuals and teams across the company.

I love the fact that I am working in an incredibly diverse, friendly and revolutionary work environment with a novel product that will change the way we commute for decades to come. Lilium is developing an electric vertical take off and landing jet and will change the way we work and travel in the near future.   

How does your work benefit society? 

Despite the innovative nature of aerospace, true and radical change is rare. Lilium seeks to create a sustainable and accessible means of transportation for everyone, by increasing the radius of mobility and moving away from harmful greenhouse gas emissions. Climate change is on everyone’s mind and it is up to us as a society to balance improving our lives while ensuring that the environmental effect is minimal. Using battery technology based on lithium-ion batteries instead of fuel-based emission systems to power the next generation of aircraft, is a key step in this journey.

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

The three-minute thesis (3MT) challenge is a competition for PhD students developed by the University of Queensland in 2008, involving presenting research in a compelling and engaging manner to a live audience within three minutes. Vitae is a professional career development organization that hosts the annual national 3MT competition for PhD students. More than 3000 students from across 48 of the UK’s top universities took part in the challenge. 6 finalists from 48 Universities were chosen for a live final in front of 350 conference delegates and 6 esteemed judges. I was honoured to become not only the first ever student in the history of UoN but also the first Indian student ever to win the prestigious Three Minute Thesis award in both the Peoples´ and Judges´ category in 2015. The Judges’ Choice Award comprised £3000 to spend on public engagement and the Peoples’ Choice Award allowed me to present my talk at the Faraday Lecture Theatre in the Royal Institution of Great Britain. Being able to communicate my work in simple terms to a wide audience will always remain a special achievement.

The pitch that won me the award was titled `On Thin Ice´ and read:  Did you know that between 2006 and 2010 in the United States of America alone, 292 flight accidents were listed due to icing. Tragically in December 2014, 162 members of Air Asia Flight 8501 lost their lives due to icing. So where does all of this ice come from then? The answer lies in the clouds!

These clouds are composed of hundreds and thousands of tiny water droplets…that are very special…because they are composed of liquid water despite being below the freezing temperature. When the aircraft passes through these clouds, it smashes into these droplets forming two types of ice: good ice and bad ice. Good ice has a lot of air, is easily removable and when you open your freezers, it’s like the ice that you can scrape off from the sides. Bad ice on the other hand is very sticky, has no air and is like an ice cube. This is where I come in.

Here at the University of Nottingham, we are working towards developing the world’s first “smart” anti-ice coating. We will test this coating using a spinning device. This device consists of a motor attached to an arm. One end of the arm is a counterweight while the other end consists of a coated aluminium plate with ice on top. When you switch on the motor, the arm rotates…at very, very, very high speeds. Until the centrifugal force, pushes the ice off the plate. This is the same reason why parents ask their kids to hold on tightly to a merry-go-round as it turns…because the moment your kids let go, the same centrifugal force pushes them to the floor. Preliminary results have already indicated a drastic reduction in the “stickiness” of ice. So eventually we hope to reduce energy consumption, prevent in-flight accidents and reduce carbon dioxide emissions to the atmosphere daily. So the next time, ladies and gentlemen, you pop an ice cube or two into your refreshing summer drinks, I’m sure you’ll remember me, Zaid Janjua…and you’ll remember this amazing process affecting the way all of us travel around the world. Thank you and good evening!

Your advice to students based on your experience?

My biggest advice to students based on my experience is to build your curiosity, develop the ability to ask sensible questions, have a logical approach for criteria satisfaction. Never be afraid to challenge a situation and ask questions. Secondly, everyone has their own pace for development. So, seek to improve your own self rather than fretting about your peer’s achievement. You should only compete with yourself.

Future Plans?

For now, my calling has grounded me to pursue an interest in the field of aerospace engineering and usher in a new generation of sustainable aircrafts. I am excited to see the Lilium jet take off and land safely. A flight in the Lilium aircraft is a promise that I made 4 years ago to my parents. I intend to keep it.