From Flying Cars to Humans on Mars with Anita Sengupta
We're kicking off 2021 with a new interview series: GOTO Unscripted, with our first round of interviews recorded back when we could still meet in person. GOTO Unscripted takes our conference speakers off the big stage and brings them behind the scenes for an intimate conversation on topics they know best.
In this episode, Jørn Larsen, CEO of Trifork, chatted with Dr. Anita Sengupta about the future of transportation and how fast we will be able to travel to Mars.
Jørn Larsen: I'm here with Anita Sengupta at GOTO Amsterdam 2019 and we are going to talk about the future of transportation.
Mars & possibly terraforming it
Jørn Larsen: I know you have been working on super exciting things like landing objects on Mars and driving around Mars and parachutes and things like this. So, my question to you is simple, Mars or the moon?
Anita Sengupta: I definitely have an opinion on this. I spent many years developing Mars entry, descent and landing technologies, and I would prefer that we go to Mars next versus the moon. If we could do both, that's great, but there's usually a funding limitation. The reason why I prefer Mars is because I think it's a much better location to set up future human colonies because there are more resources available on the surface for people. There is an atmosphere, there's CO2, which could be used to grow plants, there's water frozen in the subsurface. You can use the soil to provide radiation protection. So, I think I would rather us go a little bit further, develop those technologies so that we can have future human colonies on Mars and then beyond Mars.
Jørn Larsen: Do you have any comments on terraforming Mars and the timescale in this, because this is something that is being debated a lot.
Anita Sengupta: I don't think we know how to terraform something right now. I just don't think the technology or the understanding is there even from a physics-based perspective, but we can do things like grow extremophiles, which are plants that use the photosynthesis process to generate oxygen. We could take existing CO2 from the atmosphere, put it inside of a pressurized habitat and grow plants that would actually use the CO2 from Mars to generate oxygen for humans that are living in that same pressurized space. So, I think that probably makes more sense in the near term. I just don't think that the technology or the understanding is there yet for terraforming.
Jørn Larsen: You worked on Mars and things out there, very exciting stuff. So, why did you move to earth mobility?
Anita Sengupta: It's true that my whole life ever since I was a little kid, I was fascinated by the exploration of space and specifically other planets other than our own, and hopefully, we can get beyond the solar system one day. I worked for NASA for 16 years and a little bit in the aerospace industry before that. But as I spent more time as an engineer, as a leader, communicating with society, I decided I wanted to do something to help here at home using my skills as an engineer and my skills as a leader. So, I felt that going with the mobility sector and focusing on green sustainable mobility solutions was a way that I could use my existing skills and actually do something to help society here at home.
Hyperloop and its challenges
Jørn Larsen: Let's dig further into that. After doing the Mars and the space stuff, you actually had a career doing hyperloops, maybe you can talk a little bit about that.
Anita Sengupta: The reason I left NASA was actually to go work as an executive at a hyperloop technology company in Los Angeles. Hyperloop is pretty close to spacecraft technology because it operates in a vacuum. So, it was a real natural fit and a natural, sort of, like a progression for me to do that as my first job in the mobility sector. So hyperloop in terms of what it is as a technology is a maglev train operating in a vacuum tube.
As you go to faster and faster speeds, your primary energy consumption mechanism is aerodynamic drag. So, if you can put your high-speed system inside of a vacuum tube, sort of like traveling through space, you eliminate aerodynamic drag; you eliminate the primary energy consumption mechanisms. So, you're able to have a lower carbon footprint solution for fast-paced ground travel.
Jørn Larsen: When do you think we will have commercial hyperloops?
Anita Sengupta: From the technology perspective, it's still being developed. There are things like airlocks that have to be developed. There has to be a demonstration over long stretches of, you know, 50 kilometers-plus to make sure that you can maintain the vacuum over those long stretches over a period of time. So, I think we're probably about 5 to 10 years away from getting to the point where we could, sort of, certify that for operational use. And, of course, there's also the funding challenges associated with it, so we have to have a government that wants to put it in so we can have it in the near future.
Jørn Larsen: Then you changed from hyperloops to flying cars. So, why that change, what did you see, and what was the motivation?
Anita Sengupta: I fly for fun. I absolutely love flying and my hobby has a pretty big carbon footprint associated with it. So, the idea as an aerospace engineer and as a pilot, being able to generate a new type of aircraft which has a lower carbon footprint, to me was like the holy grail of what I could work on as an aerospace engineer going forward. I also wanted to be an entrepreneur. I wanted to start a business. It's something I've always wanted to do, and this was just the perfect opportunity and the perfect timing to go off and do it.
Jørn Larsen: Building these machines, are we just moving the congestion problem we have on the surface to the airspace?
Anita Sengupta: It's slightly different than ground-based travel because. In ground-based travel, you're limited to two dimensions. In air travel, you're limited to the three dimensions of airspace. So, by definition, the congestion drops off by orders of magnitude because you can create highways in the sky. In general, I think people don't like having to deal with cars on the ground. So, being able to move that, sort of, congestion away from people is a good thing in a sense. And the other issue associated, I suppose, with that is like if you envision a certain density of traffic in the sky, you know, several decades from now, you would need to have an update to air traffic control. But because that will happen over time, we can use existing air traffic control methodologies and approaches and rules and regulations to support the level of traffic we expect in the next 5 to 10 years.
Jørn Larsen: So, the challenges you have right now are two-fold: it's to engineer your craft, and then it's the fundraising because all the laws and regulations are already in place for you just to move on.
Anita Sengupta: There are some updates that are needed in the area of electric aviation just because most aircraft are certified to have a fuel power plant. We would have an electric power plant because the vehicle is intended to be electric. There are challenges associated with, maybe challenge isn't the right word, but we would need specification from the FAA, for example, as to how much reserve power do we need versus reserve fuel for VFR versus IFR flight, so that kind of regulatory space would need to be updated.
How will air mobility impact pollution?
Jørn Larsen: On the surface, we have a lot of noise pollution. How will the airspace be when you start using these kinds of vehicles?
Anita Sengupta: We do have a requirement that we're living on ourselves from the top-down, which is to be 20 decibels lower than a helicopter. That actually comes from a product specification that a company called Uber Elevate is interested in creating for urban air mobility. So, that's basically two orders of magnitude less noisy than a helicopter. The best analogy would be if you've ever flown in a Cessna 172 or small general aviation aircraft, the noise is just coming from the turning of the propellers. So, it becomes a much lower noise signature than you would ever experience from a helicopter by quite a bit.
Jørn Larsen: Thank you so much, Anita. Wonderful answers. And it's an exciting new world out there. So, thank you for coming to this interview and to GOTO Amsterdam.