United States of America
At the US Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR) program office for Multi-Mission Tactical Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS), Ajay Sehgal works with KBRwyle and NAVAIR engineers on UAS programs that include the MQ-8 Fire Scout, the Marine Air-Ground Task Force UAS Expeditionary (MUX) program and related UAS science and technology initiatives. “We have many engineers with extensive NAVAIR and aviation industry experience,” he observed. “First of all, we have systems engineers who can handle anything from requirements to integration to flight testing. We also have software, aerospace, mechanical and electrical engineers supporting DoD [Department of Defense] programs as subject matter experts in other specialty areas involving rotorcraft technology, UAS and complex mission systems.” On NAVAIR teams at Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Maryland, Sehgal helped deploy the Lockheed Martin/ Kaman CQ-24A K-MAX Cargo UAS to Afghanistan and arm the Northrop Grumman/Sikorsky MQ-8B Fire Scout with Advanced Precision Kill Weapon System rockets. Both teams earned innovation awards from the Naval Air Warfare Center Aircraft Division commander. Among his other responsibilities, Sehgal is now helping NAVAIR plan future UAS improvements. He explained, “A little over 15 years ago, when we started the MQ-8B Fire Scout program, it was a very basic machine integrating the Schweizer 333 helicopter with different avionics and payloads. Since then, we have integrated more sophisticated payloads and developed the MQ-8C Endurance Upgrade with an airframe from the Bell Model 407. Similarly, we’re looking into the future, five to 10 years from now. The road-mapping effort is not only looking at newer systems we will install on the aircraft but also at newer technology, newer challenges.”
Today’s UAS challenges include icing avoidance, sense-and- avoid navigation and robust autonomous takeoff and landing technologies. Without first-hand cues of ice buildup, for example, remote air vehicle operators (AVOs) lack sufficient warning time to avoid icing encounters. The Fire Scout meanwhile lacks space, weight and power (SWaP) for traditional anti-icing technologies. “The way we plan to handle the situation is to come up with a detection system which gives a warning several miles ahead of an icing situation allowing the AVO enough time to take evasive action,” said Sehgal. “We are doing some research work in the form of SBIRs — Small Business Initiated Research activities — to develop sensors that have low SWaP and the range to warn the AVO.” Sehgal acknowledged, “If you ask me at this point in time, ‘Do we have a solution for Fire Scout?’ I would have to say no, but we are getting closer.”
Things That Flew
Growing up in Delhi in northern India, Sehgal took an early interest in things that flew. “When I was a child, I looked up into the sky and wondered how airplanes stayed in the air for so long. I would also make paper planes and try to see how long I could keep them in the air.”
Sehgal’s immediate family had no engineering or aeronautical connections. “One of the things I lacked was guidance from people around me. My cousin — who pursued an engineering degree from Indian Institute of Technology [IIT], the most prestigious engineering institute in India, and came to the United States for post-graduate studies — motivated and encouraged me to follow my passion.” IIT offers aerospace engineering at different locations within India and uses competitive exam scores to place students. Sehgal recalled, “The challenge of ranking in the top 1% was my main motivation to try to get into IIT, located in Kharagpur, West Bengal. Immediately after I started at IIT, I knew I wanted to major in aerospace engineering.”
Sehgal continued, “I had set the goal of pursuing my post-graduate studies in the United States way prior to graduating from IIT. Georgia Tech offered me a financial aid package to go towards my tuition and housing expenses, which seemed like the best offer considering I came to this country with only one suitcase and $7 in my pocket to follow my dreams.”
Georgia Tech also offered Sehgal an opportunity in rotorcraft research and the pivotal mentorship of Dr. G.A. Pierce in aero elasticity and Dr. Robin Gray in helicopter aerodynamics. “I was very motivated and completed my master’s degree in aerospace engineering in just one year. The subject of my master’s thesis was The Effect of Unsteady Air loads on the Flutter Instability of a Hinge less Helicopter in Hover.”
Academics soon turned to real-world experience when the graduate engineer joined Brantly-Hynes Helicopter in Frederick, Oklahoma, in 1978 (renamed “Brantly;International” in 1989). Sehgal recalled, “Brantly was a very small company; it had a total of 24 people. I distinctly remember, when I visited them for an interview, the president of the company was surprised to hear I had never been in a helicopter. He personally took me up for a ride in one of their two-seaters, a Brantly B-2B. Soon thereafter I received an offer which was very hard to refuse; it included the standard salary along with a training package for rotorcraft flight lessons and an A&P [airframe and power plant] mechanic’s license. “Brantly was maintaining a fleet of approximately 300 helicopters, performing scheduled maintenance and unscheduled repairs. At the same time, they were trying to set up a line to build new aircraft. When I joined them, they put me in charge of setting up the new production line and getting it certified by the FAA [US Federal Aviation Administration]. I was also doing flight testing of their overhauled aircraft. All of those things served me well down the line when I got to companies like Bell. As I was completing my post-graduate degree at Georgia Tech, working for Bell Helicopter was my dream. However, the hands-on experience I gained along with the flight and mechanic training I received while working at Brantly-Hynes, and later at Robinson Helicopters, is what contributed towards me becoming a well-rounded engineer.”
Successive engineering jobs at Robinson, Gates Learjet and Beech led Sehgal to Bell Helicopter in 1985 to work on bearingless rotors for the US Army Light Helicopter Experimental (LHX), commercial Model 430 and 407, and US Marine Corps AH-1Z and UH-1Y helicopters. Sehgal was also granted a number of US and international patents for his work on these systems. He said, “I was very fortunate to work on the H-1 Upgrade Program from its very inception all the way through its certification flight testing. Once we initiated the flight test program, I moved to Patuxent River, Maryland, from Fort Worth, Texas.”
Pax River also provided a chance for Sehgal to work on the AgustaWestlandBell VH-71 Presidential helicopter program cancelled in 2009. He noted, “The VH-71 was supposed to be a COTS [commercial off-the-shelf] aircraft; basically an EH101 with modifications for systems and whatever mission equipment that had to be installed. As we started getting into the certification and talking to the folks at NAVAIR, we were crafting the requirements which are standard for every Navy aircraft. Those criteria, which were not supposed to be there at the time of the COTS selection, meant we had to go back and redesign it and re-test it and re-fly it. Overall, these little things started to add up, and it got to the point where it became an unaffordable program.”
NAVAIR program experience nevertheless led Sehgal to a job with Wyle (now KBRwyle) in 2009 as chief systems engineer and a subject matter expert for rotorcraft and UAS. “Unmanned aircraft definitely come with their own challenges,” acknowledged Sehgal. “When you are testing a manned aircraft, you go through every rigor and every safety measure you can think of to make sure nothing goes wrong, but if something does not go as you expected, the human in the cockpit takes over and brings it back home. In an unmanned aircraft, you don’t have that luxury. You have to take additional measures to ensure it makes it back safely and does not become a danger to others in the air or on the ground.” Sehgal used his Textron Six-Sigma black-belt training to help formulate an MQ-8B reliability improvement plan that improved overall air vehicle reliability more than 400%. The MQ-8C improved reliability by another 25%. Sehgal expects electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) and urban air mobility to drive further autonomous aircraft advances. “Autonomy is something that scares people. Autonomy is different from automation. It behaves differently in different situations without being directed to do so. That’s perceived negatively by people because they lack the confidence to accept that.” Sehgal noted that Uber Elevate plans to start with piloted passenger operations and transition to autonomous air taxis. “I believe that can be done in the next 10–15 years. It is definitely going to take that time, not necessarily to develop the technology but to make people more comfortable with the concept.”
Sehgal also believes that within next 5–10 years, companies like Google and Amazon will deliver packages using drones. He joined ASTM International Committee F38 —the standards organization’s technical committee on UAS—in 2010 to help private UAS companies come up with innovative ways to integrate their operations into the National Airspace System (NAS). He is currently the vice-chairman of the committee and is helping to develop UAS consensus standards ranging from airworthiness to operations to training requirements.
Sehgal joined the Vertical Flight Society (then AHS) during his time at Georgia Tech. “I was able to tap into a wealth of technical information through the AHS Journal. I was also fortunate to receive a Vertical Flight Foundation scholarship in 1978 [the second year of awards]. It meant a lot to me for a number of reasons; it brought recognition among peers and faculty, and it provided financial assistance when it meant the most. I have found my involvement with AHS to be personally and professionally rewarding and an excellent way to stay up to date with industry, academic and DoD activities.” Sehgal is the chairman of the VFS Unmanned VTOL Technical Committee. He twice organized industry panels on the future of autonomous VTOL on behalf of VFS at the AUVSI XPONENTIAL annual meeting.
Sehgal noted, “As I look around here at KBRwyle and at NAVAIR, it is becoming harder and harder to attract good new engineering graduates to the local area. Everybody wants to go to the West Coast because they feel that’s where all the action is, and that’s where all the money is. Aircraft work is perceived as boring and mundane, working on only the mechanical systems, the transmissions, or the airframes. There’s really so much technology, so much software, so much programming in them that the challenges here are just as intriguing as what they’re finding on the West Coast.
“The way to compete for talent is through organizations like AHS, which are spending a lot of time promoting EVTOL. Universities need to continue to take a more active role so students develop an interest in this area. The third way is through mentoring and internships. Every summer, we hire seven to 10 interns from nearby universities. We try to find the right match for them working with NAVAIR in their areas of interest. What I’m finding is these students are so self-directed, they want to come back again, and in many cases, we are able to place them with NAVAIR full-time after graduation.”