When Anita Sengupta was a child, she spent a lot of time on aircraft. She and her family often travelled between the USA and the UK to visit relatives, and the concept of lift fascinated her.
“My dad was a mechanical engineer and when I was a little kid, he taught me how lift worked,” she says. “I thought it was magic, but then I learned that there’s actually an explanation for it.”
Armed with that explanation, and coupled with an active imagination and boundless ambition, Sengupta was well on her way to an aerospace career.
“I’m a huge science fiction fan, so I sort of always knew I wanted to be with the space programme. That was kind of a no-brainer. But I had to decide whether it would be astrophysics or engineering.”
Her father taught her how to fix things around the house, and she found she had an aptitude for working with her hands and finding practical solutions. So engineering seemed the more logical choice.
“Engineering is all about constantly solving problems, and that’s what makes me happy,” she says. “So the apple didn’t fall very far from the tree.”
She completed her PhD in aerospace engineering in the early 2000s, then launched what would become a 16-year career at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). There she worked on Mars landers, Earth re-entry systems and other advanced propulsion technology projects.
“My whole training as an engineer is to do very difficult, complicated things and make them work the first time, so I always look for really interesting challenges,” she says.
In 2017, she was recruited away from JPL to work at Virgin Hyperloop – cutting-edge tech of a different sort, but for Sengupta a bit too pie-in-the-sky. “It was an interesting journey, but I felt like it wasn’t something that was going to be happening anytime soon.”
She next dipped into the world of electric vertical take-off and landing technology, where she “learned all about what batteries can and can’t do in the context of aviation”.
And, she determined, there is actually a lot they can’t do.
“When Covid hit I thought this would be a great opportunity for me to start my own company and actually solve the aircraft electrification problem,” she says. Sengupta quickly zeroed in on developing hydrogen fuel cell propulsion systems for light aircraft, and called her company “Hydroplane”.
As a commercially rated single-engine pilot, she soon found out her pilot community loved the idea. Hydrogen fuel cells create electricity from hydrogen and air, and emit water.
“I want to bring the technology to our marketplace – general aviation – which is flight training, which is smaller aircraft, which is urban air mobility,” she says. “It’s something that people want. We just need to bring it to them.”
And she was supremely qualified to make it happen.
“My PhD was in endurance testing of electric propulsion systems, but for spacecraft. So I know so much about how you have to really understand the physics of an electric engine to understand how it’s going to fail [and] how it’s going to degrade to give you the lifetime that you want,” Sengupta says. “This is kind of like my bread and butter. This is what I was trained to do.”
Amid dozens of other start-ups working on this new, more-sustainable way to power aircraft, Hydroplane’s concept is unique because it aims to develop fuel cell propulsion systems for general aviation aircraft, which would have them as their only source of power. Several other companies, by contrast, are developing fuel cell-powered regional aircraft and hybrid-electric propulsion concepts.
“I wanted to go all in. I don’t believe in the hybrid-propulsion route, especially for small aircraft. It’s not necessary, and it’s also really expensive if you have two systems to maintain, two types of failure modes. It’s actually a stupid solution in my opinion.”
Hydroplane, which is a two-time contract awardee of the US Air Force’s Agility Prime programme, has 18 employees and aims to fly its demonstrator, a modified Piper Cherokee, in the coming months.
As if leading a start-up and developing novel aviation technology is not enough, in addition to her day job as chief executive she is also a research professor of astronautical engineering at the University of Southern California, where she teaches spacecraft and entry system design.
Sengupta has won numerous industry awards, including the National Aeronautic Association’s Katherine and Marjorie Stinson Trophy, which recognises “a living person for an outstanding and enduring contribution to the role of women in the field of aviation, aeronautics, space or related sciences”.
Still, she says, the industry remains a tough slog.
“There are few women doing entrepreneurial stuff in aerospace. It seems like even if you’ve got a really good track record and really good credentials, if you’re a woman or from another underrepresented group, you’re going to have an uphill battle, unfortunately.”
Despite all her achievements, accolades and roles, Sengupta is still bubbling with fresh ideas about how to make the industry better, and more equitable.
“I love teaching, it’s so much fun,” she says. With her commercial pilot certificate in hand, she is just one checkride away from being able to teach others how to fly, too. Her target audience? Low-income youth.
“I’d like to get my instructor certificate, that’s why I got my commercial in the first place. I’m just a little bit bandwidth-limited at the moment with getting the aircraft ready [for flight testing]. So hopefully next year I’ll be able to do that.”