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Flying to New Heights

Ranjan Ganguli of the Indian Institute of Science talks about his research into a variety of flight vehicles and the importance of collaborations between India and the United States.

As a 2010-11 Fulbright-Nehru Senior Research Fellow at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and now as a professor of aerospace engineering at the Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru, Ranjan Ganguli knows what it means to reach the heights of one’s field. His research broadly focuses on aeronautics, applied mechanics and computational science. He addresses problems in structural dynamics and aeroelasticity, structural health monitoring, composite and adaptive structures and optimal design. He has worked on flight vehicles ranging from helicopters and aircraft to unmanned aerial vehicles and micro air vehicles.

Excerpts from an interview.


Could you tell us about your experiences as a 2010-11 Fulbright-Nehru Senior Research Fellow at the University of Michigan?
I had a very good experience in terms of professional and personal growth. I spent the time researching small helicopters and their application for increasing agricultural productivity. I interacted with different researchers in the area and was very impressed by the interaction between the science, engineering, and other departments [of the university].


What are some of your current research interests?
For most of my career, I have focused on engineering analysis and design of rotating systems, such as helicopters and gas turbines. I have tried to improve the design of these machines by using mathematical methods. In recent years, I have worked on enhancing flight safety for helicopters and gas turbines. One hears of helicopter crashes at regular intervals, and many of these problems are caused by poorly-understood physics for helicopters compared to their fixed-wing counterparts.

I am also studying the effect of uncertainty on design. When we make many specimens of a given machine, there is considerable variability in these machines due to manufacturing. We try to address the question: Does this variability lead to more crashes, engine shut downs, delays or cancellations?


What do you think of the relationship between teaching and research as modalities of learning?
I think that combining teaching and research leads to maximum professional impact. Research topics have become very specialized in recent years. However, teaching ensures that researchers stay in touch with fundamentals and also benefit from the questions posed by newcomers to the field. In addition, guiding graduate students leads to learning on the part of the professors, as these students often embark on new areas of study. By creating new Ph.D.’s, one ensures new research is published, which enhances the global science, and that the local systems benefit when the student joins the society as an academic or industrial researcher. Students are also a good connection between researchers in different countries as they pursue graduate study abroad.


What do you think are some of the most promising, and troubling, possibilities for unmanned aerial vehicles in the future?
Unmanned aerial vehicles, also called drones, are becoming widely used in various applications. Retailers are considering shipping goods to consumers using drones. Also, many functions of aerial photography, traffic management, disaster management and terrorism control can be aided by drones.

Some of the greatest dangers involve the possibility of drones colliding with commercial aircraft and the use of drones by terrorists. There is also the possibility of machine learning based drones or systems of drones going rogue.


In terms of educational and cross-cultural experiences, how do you view the relationship between the United States and India in STEM fields?
The relation has been a strong one, due to the continuous movement of people from India to the U.S. as students and back as researchers, faculty and entrepreneurs. There are now opportunities such as the SERB [Science and Engineering Research Board] fellowship and Fulbright, for scholars to move between these countries. In the next 10 years, if high economic growth in India continues, I expect much greater interaction between India and the U.S.


Trevor Laurence Jockims teaches writing, literature and contemporary culture at New York University.