Meet the team behind Volansi’s flying robots. Each week we share stories from the team at Volansi highlighting their journey to joining the team, how they help keep our drones taking off, and some quirky fun along the way.
Title at Volansi: Chief Engineer of SARA
Joined the team: 2018
Team member #13
Hometown: Swartz Creek, Michigan
Tell us a little bit about your background and the work you did before joining the Volansi team?
I earned dual bachelor’s degrees in Mechanical Engineering and Engineering Physics at Kettering University in Flint, Michigan. Kettering is a co-op based school, and I did all of my rotations at Pratt & Whitney AutoAir, doing a mix of CAD design and manufacturing engineering. I was also heavily involved in the SAE Aero Design team, where you design, build and then fly a complete RC aircraft for what is basically a weightlifting competition. I then went on to earn my masters and doctoral degrees at Stanford University in the Aeronautics and Astronautics department, where I performed research into high-order numerical methods for computational fluid dynamics (CFD) with a focus on methods for moving-grid simulations on GPUs (the signature simulation for my dissertation was a spinning golf ball – harder than it sounds!). As I neared graduation I was starting to look for jobs in the field of scientific computing, but Manuel Lopez (employee No. 1) was one of my labmates and he convinced me to come work for him at Volansi.
In your own words, what do you do at Volansi?
This has changed a lot over the years! I started out doing aerodynamic design and performance analysis and eventually became the sole developer of our autopilot software. That eventually led to my current role of leading the Embedded Systems Team. My team covers not just the autopilot, but many of the peripheral devices that interface with it, along with all of our communications systems. More recently I was also given the role of Chief Engineer of the SARA platform, which involves taking a broader look across all of the SARA teams and ensuring that our technical approaches remain aligned with meeting our near- and long-term goals.
What has been your favorite project so far at Volansi?
This is a tough one. I guess I’d say my current “pet project,” which is still very much in progress, involves working with the global PX4 development community to make PX4 more modular, developer-friendly and extensible through the use of PX4-based CAN nodes and the UAVCAN protocol. It’s a little abstract, but my concrete goal is to enable live system health monitoring of all actuators (servos and ESCs) via CAN nodes – as in full feedback of RPM, torque, current, voltage, etc.
What do you like to do in your spare time?
I’m a cyclist/mountain biker and I love doing all-day rides into the wilderness from my front door – sometimes even multi-day bikepacking trips! I love just being outdoors in general, and particularly in the mountains.
Who are your heroes in aviation, drone, or logistics history?
I’d say my two biggest heros are Kelly Johnson and Burt Rutan. Kelly Johnson was the first leader of Lockheed’s Skunk Works (HIGHLY recommend reading Ben Rich’s book, Skunk Works!) and just an amazing aeronautical engineer. Burt Rutan is another aircraft designer, known for his really off-the-wall designs – look up the Voyager, Proteus or Boomerang aircraft.
We are in the dawn of unmanned flight and autonomous mobility. What are the applications that excite you most?
I think one of the coolest possible applications that’s not too different from what Volansi is tackling is wilderness search-and-rescue. Imagine scanning a remote forest to find a lost hiker and either dropping medical supplies or lifting them out, all autonomously – we could get there!