Nieke Roos
12 July

“Whenever people ask me about the project I’m doing for Airbus, I tell them that we’re working with lasers in space, like in a sci-fi movie,” jokes PDEng Software Technology trainee Nastaran Bajalan. She’s leading the team that’s looking into free-space optical communication, one of two collaborations the aerospace giant has embarked on with the TUE’s post-graduate program.

“I got to know the PDEng program four years ago,” recalls Airbus research scientist Sergio Feo Arenis. “Back then, I worked at the European Space Agency and we did a project together with the program, developing algorithms for getting drones to fly in formation. That left such a positive impression on me that when they contacted me again a few months ago, now at Airbus, asking me if we had any interesting projects to collaborate on, I immediately jumped at the opportunity.”

Noise perception

Feo Arenis came up with not one but two projects. In the first one, the PDEng trainees are engineering and analyzing new communication networks based on free-space optics (FSO). “So enabling communication between different locations on Earth, not using cables or radio waves but light,” explains the Airbus researcher. “Together with the trainees, we’re developing a simulation framework to provide insight into the performance of these massively parallel systems communicating using FSO.”

Airbus space data highway
Credit: Airbus/James Vaughan

The second project focuses on urban air mobility. “There’s an increasing number of companies developing small aircraft, mostly electrically operated, that can cover short distances and move very efficiently between urban locations – the modern version of the helicopter,” describes Feo Arenis. “Although Airbus has already reduced helicopter sound levels by more than half over the last decades, with the rise of urban air mobility, it’s paramount to ensure acceptability for urban communities. This is why research on noise reduction and noise perception is highly relevant. We’ve asked the PDEng trainees to create a simulator that puts those new aircraft in an urban environment and allows us to analyze how much noise people are exposed to in their daily lives.”

Futuristic

Each of the two Airbus projects consists of a team of six trainees, from three PDEng programs: Software Technology (ST), Mechatronic Systems Design (MSD) and Automotive Systems Design (ASD). “Running from 3 May to 9 July, the projects are part of a joint module where PDEng trainees collaborate in small, multidisciplinary groups,” says ST program director Yanja Dajsuren. “The goal is to improve their skills across the board, by letting them tackle not only software or mechanical issues but also challenges on the system level.”

In total, 32 trainees are working on five projects – in addition to the two Airbus teams, there are collaborations with DAF Trucks, Siemens and Royal Fruitmasters. Dajsuren: “We look for projects that are both technologically challenging and have a high societal impact. We asked Airbus because it’s a leading company in defense and aerospace, offering exciting futuristic assignments at the forefront of technological developments, but also because we’ve come to know Sergio as an innovative visionary, a strong technologist and an excellent mentor for our trainees.”

A lot of fun

For ASD trainee Yash Khetan, serving as a quality engineer on the noise simulator project, the PDEng program is a real confidence boost. “I feel much more ready now to assist in leading a team. The automotive technology master at the TUE gave me a solid technical basis; the PDEng program both deepens this knowledge and sharpens my management and social skills. The start of the Airbus project was somewhat overwhelming, having to process a mountain of information and expectations from all the stakeholders, but along the way, it has become a lot of fun – mostly thanks to Sergio, who has really put us all at ease. I particularly enjoy the technical discussions with my fellow trainees and the people from Airbus.”

Airbus City Airbus
Credit: Airbus Helicopters

For ST trainee and FSO project manager Nastaran Bajalan, the PDEng program is giving her the leg up she was looking for. “Before joining, I had been working in industry for three years, but I felt something was missing. The PDEng program is filling that gap by advancing my technical knowledge, as well as my soft skills. The architectural decisions I’m making are really helping me achieve my goal of becoming a senior software architect. The Airbus project is challenging, giving us a lot of information to process, but also really cool – whenever people ask me about it, I tell them that we’re working with lasers in space, like in a sci-fi movie. And Sergio is the coolest stakeholder: very approachable, very open and teaching us all kinds of interesting new things.”

Win-win

“Collaborating with TUE’s PDEng trainees is, in one word, refreshing,” concludes Feo Arenis. “It allows me to discuss in an open and agile way the challenges we’re facing and the interesting solutions they’re coming up with, without all the process overhead that’s so typical of large-scale companies. Having these very efficient collaborators from the TUE was like having extra hands to actually do the fun part of the job and get the required information much more quickly than if we were to do it ourselves.”

Carsten Strobel, senior research project leader at Airbus, is equally enthusiastic about the collaboration: “Such a quick ramp-up into a new topic is really impressive, and the speed of progress too. Also, the engineering curiosity to not just focus on the narrow target scope but to stay aware of the bigger picture has led to enjoyable discussions about prioritization of tasks. This has been a true win-win collaboration – not just an educational exercise.”

Main picture credit: Airbus/MVRDV