My name is Sytse Tacoma; I am a mechanical engineer with an absolute passion for design and build, especially when it comes to electric vehicles. From a young age, you would find me tinkering in the garage with electric motors and batteries. I was fascinated by their ability to propel me around at high speed, which was realised when I built my very first electric vehicle, a go-kart, at the age of 13, this marked the start of a life-long mission: to bring electric vehicles to the mass market.
I knew from the outset that I wanted to be a mechanical engineer. I was looking for an institution where the education was geared towards practical problem solving and the classes were taught by lecturers with industry experience - ultimately, I wanted a degree that would be respected by engineers worldwide. I found all of this at the University of Canterbury (UC).
I enrolled at UC in 2009 and graduated in 2013, completing the four year BE(Hons) Mechanical Degree with 1st Class Honours. I have many fond memories of UC, both with the degree itself and the social events in between. Being an active member of ENSOC was a real highlight. The degree aside, the most important and rewarding aspect of studying at UC is the network of connections that you make along the way. You get to meet other people studying in your field of interest, many of whom come from very different backgrounds.
As a mechanical engineering student, I had many role models at UC. The Head of the Mechanical Department, Prof Milo Kral, and the technical staff of the mechanical wing were among the most influential for me. They were supportive of my endeavours to use the workshop resources to hone my skills and expertise, and work on hobby projects. It was, of course, an electric vehicle.
Where are you working now? What projects are you involved in?
A career in engineering leads to endless opportunities for continued learning. An ability to adapt to new technologies and stay relevant is what I value most about my degree. Industries are becoming more and more dynamic as they continue to grow. I may have started my career as a mechanical engineer, but my current role is weighted more towards electrical and software-related fields.
At UC I gained the core mechanical skills, but more importantly, I learned how to be adaptive and how to absorb information quickly. I took these values that UC taught me and applied them to my own personal hobby, building my very own electric motorcycle. In 2012, I drafted ideas on how to build an electric motorcycle. In those times, the EV industry was still in its infancy. I was hunting down the best combination of a motor, a controller, and batteries. I estimate that I spent about 2000 hours building the motorcycle, most of which was done late at night. In the summer of 2015, the RS-E50 rolled out of the garage for the first time. The RS-E50 started life as an Aprilia RS-250. It now has a 55kW (74 hp) AC induction motor, a 120 V 650 amp controller, and a 6.5kWh lithium-ion battery pack. The motorcycle is road registered, and it has done over 6000 kms on electricity. I am currently in the middle of upgrading the battery with a 12kWh 18650 battery pack that should push the range out to 200km per charge.
Armed with a degree from UC, I have worked in a variety of fields taking on many different roles. I got my first real shot working in the EV industry as a project manager building electric buses and trucks for Wrightspeed Powertrains. My current role as a Sr. Flight Test Engineer for Wisk New Zealand is the most rewarding yet. We are an urban air-mobility company with a mission is to deliver safe, everyday flight travel for everyone. For me, that means working on ‘Cora’, an all-electric air taxi, that takes-off and lands vertically like a helicopter but flies like a plane.
What's more, the aircraft is self-piloted. I am so excited for what the future holds; working on this project is an absolute joy. My role is focused on developing the aircraft to be the safest and most reliable vehicle possible, as it is intended to ultimately take to the skies with passengers on board. I work on everything from electric motors to controller software, where improvement through iterative design is my purpose. Contributing to the development of air travel, that is quick, convenient and kind to the planet is definitely an exciting prospect.
What do you love the most about your field of work?
The level of innovation in engineering is what I love most about my field of work. I am surrounded by like-minded, innovative people that are all striving to develop world-class technology.
Please tell us how UC courses/lecturers have contributed to what you do now. How has your degree translated to "real world" work?
An all-electric, vertical take-off and landing, self-flying aircraft is the ultimate blend of electromechanical systems. There is a lot going on; understanding the fundamentals of each system is crucial when it comes to developing such a wonderfully complex machine. UC prepared me well by teaching me the fundamentals of engineering, which I apply to my work daily. Whether it be machine dynamics from A/Prof Stefanie Gutschmidt, Boundary layer aerodynamics from Prof Mathieu Sellier, or controls theory from Distinguished Prof Geoff Chase, all of these fantastic courses allowed me to contribute in the way that I do today.
You are still quite early into your career. Long term, what would you like to achieve?
Electric vehicles are set to revolutionise the transport sector. Air-based transport is certainly the most challenging to nail, so I feel right at home working on this most fulfilling journey building electric aircraft. Long-term, I hope to be part of the transition to an EV future where hopping into an electric air taxi is as normal as riding on a bus.