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Student story

Dhruv Rathi

20 July 2023

"It is incredibly humbling to have the opportunity to make meaningful contributions to defying gravity..."


Bachelor of Engineering with Honours in Mechanical Engineering

Senior Flight Test Engineer, Zephyr Airworks, Kitty Hawk Corporation

Having always been passionate about air transportation, a career in aircraft design and flight testing has been an absolute dream come true for Dhruv, now working on the world’s first electric air taxi.

“Whether it was building paper planes or radio controlled planes that never quite flew right, I’d always wanted to learn how to better design, build, and fly airplanes,” he says.

With UC’s ‘top-notch’ engineering facilities on his radar, Dhruv was quick to find his place with a degree in Mechanical Engineering.

“By the time I was finishing up secondary education, I got the sense that a Mechanical Engineering degree would help a great deal to setting me up for a prospective career in aircraft design,” he says. 

“Having a faculty that really enjoyed teaching their material made a huge difference for me at UC. Lecturers took the time to explain concepts outside of lecture halls, and even outside their office hours for some very memorable courses.

“But Academics were only a part of my UC experience. Politely put, my grades were consistently mediocre, even in courses I really enjoyed. What helped me get through was a passion for designing and building radio-controlled flying machines, and a persistent desire to apply what I learned in courses – especially Statistics, Mechanics, and Materials Science – on co-curricular projects.” 

Throughout study, Dhruv completed real-world project work to apply his mechanical engineering skills. His experiences included internships at an investment casting company in Auckland, and with the Christchurch Engine Centre as a Tooling Design Engineer; as well as a joint project with UC Mechanical Engineering and Health Sciences departments, designing improved rock climbing holds as part of a Summer Research Scholarship. 

Dhruv’s final degree project saw him design and build an unmanned aircraft airframe, named Toroa, for use in Antarctic research, which further inspired his career track into aircraft engineering.

He also attributes his time with clubs such as MOTOSOC for connecting him with fun, practical challenges for his coursework.

“It would be hard for me to overstate the importance of relationships I developed with faculty, technical staff, and the like-minded students I befriended at UC. They helped me get to where I am today,” he says. “I can confidently say that the quality of engineering education at Canterbury is truly world-class, having worked alongside alumni from UC and other well-regarded institutions overseas.”

Following graduation, Dhruv had the exciting opportunity to study in-depth aerospace engineering at North Carolina State University in the USA.

“After a very rewarding and enlightening four years at UC, I knew I wanted to get more specialised knowledge in the field of applied aerodynamics for fixed-wing aircraft,” he says. “Following my studies at NC State, I started working with a small team in California (ICON Aircraft Inc.) as a Design Engineer for an amphibious light sport aircraft.”

Dhruv also made a point of getting his private pilot’s license to get into the air himself.

“After becoming a private pilot, I found that I enjoyed sharing the magic of flying with people interested in aviation. This led to a few more ratings in subsequent years, including my commercial and instructor pilot certificates. Most of my colleagues are interested in aviation; some are interested in learning to fly, so I instruct during the weekends.”

Eventually Dhruv turned to flight testing with California-based Kitty Hawk Corp., working on Cora – one of the world’s first electric air taxis. Cora combines self-piloting software and rises like a helicopter and flies like a plane, eliminating the need for a runway. Dhruv’s role in the Cora project involves planning and executing real-time tests for aircraft performance, materials assessment, risk management, and post-flight analysis.

“Flight Testing is often described as a team sport, because safe and effective flight test execution relies on good crew coordination between flying and ground-based crew with specialised roles. For me, this means that every day is different, whether I’m at my desk, in the air, or on the ground, staring at the sky.

“Some days, this means I fly or ride in a chase vehicle, observing aircraft behaviour and managing air traffic in the area while the test aircraft autonomously performs a planned series of manoeuvres. Other days, this means monitoring propulsion system performance and battery health in a windowless room receiving real-time telemetry from a flying aircraft, ready to inform or warn the Test Director of possible issues. Occasionally, it can also involve stepping through MATLAB code to determine whether the results of post-flight analysis are to be believed or not.”

One especially helpful aspect that he carries from UC is applying principles of physics to daily flight tests. 

“As an example, it’s one thing to have learned the difference between stiffness and toughness in coursework, but being able to fluidly apply that knowledge to solve an open-ended material selection problem is the type of thing that UC graduates seem to excel at. 

“I think this is because Mechanical Engineering undergraduate classes at UC emphasise this throughout the four years of study in various assignments and projects. We get critically evaluated on our ability to justify our design decisions, making manufacturability a priority, and also becoming effective technical communicators.”

A large part of his flight testing role is having expertise in many broad engineering areas. He is now able to bring his expertise home as one of a hand-picked group of US-based flight test engineers supporting Cora’s testing and go-to-market plans in New Zealand. During his time in New Zealand, he is bringing the best of his UC education and real-world experience to upskill local flight test engineers, who are joining the Cora programme.

For the future, Dhruv is looking forward to gaining more experience working in every aspect of aircraft engineering.

“I effectively get to tinker with weird-looking aircraft at the cutting edge of what is currently possible in the realm of electric flight on a daily basis. Flight test is where the efforts of an aerospace programme’s team finally get realised, and it is incredibly humbling to have the opportunity to make meaningful contributions to defying gravity,” he says.

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