Looking for an example of the caliber of people who are being drawn to the world of eVTOL aircraft? Look no further than Dr. Anita Sengupta, an actual rocket scientist who left NASA to co-found the startup Airspace Experience Technologies (ASX). Based in Detroit, Michigan, ASX is developing the tilt-wing Mobi-One vehicle, which will exist in both fully electric and hybrid configurations for urban air mobility (UAM) and cargo missions, respectively.
As a female engineer and pilot in two heavily male-dominated industries — space and aviation — Sengupta is active on Twitter and the conference circuit not only to promote her new company, but also to champion the importance of diversity in STEM fields. We caught up with her in early September at the Global Urban Aviation Summit in Farnborough, U.K., where she was one of the keynote presenters. (This interview has been edited and condensed.)
eVTOL.com: Tell me a bit about your background and your work with NASA.
Anita Sengupta: So my background is all aerospace — bachelor’s, master’s and PhD. I spent most of my career working for the space program at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory on robotic space exploration. And my expertise is actually in electric propulsion: plasma propulsion systems for deep space, and then entry, descent, and landing systems for Mars, Venus, and Earth re-entry.
eVTOL.com: So how did you move from space to being interested in eVTOL aircraft?
Sengupta: I made the transition from the space program into the private sector for a very specific reason: I wanted to take my engineering skills and my leadership skills and apply them to [solving] some of the challenges here on earth — a more terrestrial application. And I’m also a pilot by training, so the idea of being able to shift over to transportation and aviation was kind of the perfect marriage of my abilities and my interests and my hobbies.
eVTOL.com: Tell me about your company and the aircraft you’re developing.
Sengupta: My company is called Airspace Experience Technologies. We are an aviation startup based in Detroit, Michigan. And our solution for electric vertical takeoff and landing is a tilt-wing aircraft, which is fully electric for the urban air mobility use case and hybrid-electric for longer ranges for cargo logistics, emergency response, and things like that.
eVTOL.com: Why a tilt-wing configuration?
Sengupta: We are focused on the urban air mobility use case, and part of that from a product requirements standpoint is the ability to land essentially anywhere. So vertical takeoff and landing was key to the aircraft design that we came up with. But we’re also really trying to make an aircraft which is as energy efficient as possible. Being able to be a VTOL as well as a V/STOL aircraft [means] if we can make use of existing infrastructure for take-off and landing with a runway, we can be even more energy efficient. We focused on the tilt-wing solution as opposed to a tilt-rotor solution because we felt like it was more reliable, safer, fewer moving parts, and very energy efficient.
eVTOL.com: Where are you in the development process?
Sengupta: In the development process right now we have a conceptual design that we’ve built a total of five subscale aircraft for — so we built a total of four fifth-scale aircraft and one third-scale aircraft. On the subscale aircraft we do the demonstration of all the modes of flight: vertical take-off and landing, transition over to cruise, and then we cruise around the airport where we’re located. And so we use that to optimize the vehicle shape in terms of lift-to-drag. We use it to optimize the control laws; how we could fly the vehicle autonomously eventually, in the future. From that point forward we’ll shift over to building a full-scale hover demonstrator in the next six months, and then a full-scale, fully functional demonstrator for all modes of flight in the next 14 to 16 months.
eVTOL.com: Why are you based in Detroit?
Sengupta: We’re based in Detroit for a very specific reason, which is to leverage the best of automotive and aviation. One of the most important facts for making urban air mobility become something which everybody can use — from an affordability perspective, from an accessibility perspective — is to bring the price point down of the vehicles, but of course not do anything to reduce the safety of the vehicles. And so if we can leverage both parts suppliers and industrial design and mass production, volume manufacturing techniques from the automotive world, we can actually reduce the cost of the vehicle. For example, our electric vehicle drive train is making use of automotive hardware for the electric motor as well as for the batteries. When you can use economies of scale, when you can use pre-existing commercial-off-the-shelf hardware, you can reduce the total cost of your vehicle even for an aviation application.
eVTOL.com: So where do you see the landscape of urban air mobility today and what do you think are some of the biggest challenges?
Sengupta: We view multiple use cases as a path to get to market as fast as possible. And so our first path to market will be for cargo logistics and emergency response. We see us being able to use our Mobi-One vehicle taking off and landing at existing general aviation airports in the United States and potentially other places in the world. [With] that cargo logistics use case, we can get to market pretty quickly — 2022, 2023 timeframe.
We see the regulatory space being updated to include new types of vehicles for this urban air mobility space. And so we see it being more realistic in terms of getting a full vehicle certification for let’s say part 135 operations, to happen in the 2024, 2025 timeframe. We definitely are designing a vehicle to carry four passengers plus the pilot for the UAM use case, and we’re also designing the vehicle to have a pilot and 1,100 pounds of cargo for the cargo logistics and emergency response use case.
eVTOL.com: Tell me a bit about your background with flying.
Sengupta: I got my private pilot’s license a long time ago, I think it was 2002. I had just graduated with my master’s degree and I’d always wanted to be a pilot; always wanted to be able to fly. And I actually got my license out of John Wayne Airport in Southern California, which is a Class Charlie, very busy airport. So there’s one runway for GA aircraft and the other runway next to you with all the Southwest jets taking off. So I’m used to the busy urban air mobility space from that perspective.
I did take some time off from [flying] after I was working on my PhD — I had just bought a house, so I had to take a couple of years off from flying. And then I re-started again I think in 2012, and now I’m almost done with my instrument rating.
eVTOL.com: What is it like being a woman in this industry? What are some of the challenges, and what would you like to say to like other women who are interested in this industry?
Sengupta: I think one of the biggest challenges that aerospace has as a field as a whole — whether it’s from the space side of things or from the aviation side of things — is there’s just not enough women. There’s not enough diversity of people from underrepresented groups. And so one of the reasons why I speak at a lot of conferences and do a lot of outreach is to get the word out there, to get more young women and girls involved in the aerospace side of things.
Aerospace engineering as a degree — I’m a little bit biased — it’s probably one of the coolest engineering degrees you can get. And [eVTOL] aviation as a technology to develop is super exciting because you’re at the forefront of improving the quality of people’s lives, but you’re also at the forefront of revolution in the industry, which currently does have a high carbon footprint. So with the solutions that we’re working on for UAM, which are electric aviation, emission-free aviation, you’re actually at the forefront of reducing the carbon footprint for air travel.