Building the NASA Mars Ingenuity helicopter

Andrea Macdonald, founder of ideaXme interviews Loay Elbasyouni, senior director for engineering at Astrodyne TDI.

Loay Elbasyouni. Image provided by Loay Elbasyouni. Credit: Loay Elbasyouni.

Loay was lead electrical and power electronics engineer (to 2018), who helped build the NASA Ingenuity Mars helicopter.

In this interview discover the technical challenges the team faced in building the first powered aircraft to fly on Mars, moreover discover the personal challenges significant people who were part of Loay’s journey to work on this project. This interview provides more technical details relating to the building of Ingenuity as well as information relating to Loay’s personal story.

Loay’s detailed role on the NASA Mars Ingenuity helicopter. — Acted as Power Electronics lead and Electrical lead on Ingenuity Mars Helicopter NASA-JPL. — Lead Ingenuity Propulsion system and design motor controller, inverter, servo controller, motor, and signal management with JPL-NASA avionic box. — Design schematics and layout for Motor controller/inverter servo controller. — Lead all electrical design review with JPL-NASA. — Worked with JPL-NASA control team on motor control algorithm. — Electrical and functional testing for Propulsion motor. — Worked with Perseverance rover team on components selections. — worked on space radiation study to use earth rates components in space applications. Source: Loay Elbasyouni’s official biography, Linkedin.

This interview took place shortly before the 4th attempted flight of Ingenuity.

Andrea Macdonald, founder ideaXme: [00:00:00] Just over a week ago, NASA’s Ingenuity Mars helicopter made history by making the first powered and controlled flight on another planet. I’m here with someone who was, for a time, one of the lead engineers on the project. He will go through the details and bring us up to date on this project. Who are you?

Loay Elbasyouni, senior director engineering at Astrodyne TDI: [00:00:43] I am Loay Elbasyouni. I’m an electrical engineer specializing in electrical propulsion. I was part of the helicopter team. I worked with the team that developed the rotor system. I was the lead electrical and power electronics engineer. To break it down, it basically comes down to the motor. I developed the motor controller — the motor and the server controllers that control the propellers and the majority of the electrical system — interfacing the wires all the way down to the computer. I also helped with assisting the algorithm of the motor controller.

Andrea Macdonald, founder ideaXme: [00:01:23] There were many challenges to overcome. For example, it was necessary to recreate the Mars atmosphere on Earth. Can you talk us through that?

Loay Elbasyouni, senior director engineering at Astrodyne TDI: [00:01:36] At NASA JPL, there is a Mars chamber, where they suck out the air and they replace it with CO2, to create the air density on Mars. And that’s where a lot of the tests actually have happened. The majority of the work happened based on simulation early on and calculation. That was until we got to the model, when we were able to build the aircraft.

Andrea Macdonald, founder ideaXme: [00:02:02] The challenge was to get the aircraft as light as possible. Furthermore, the length of the propellers was critical. I think the propellers were much longer than would be proportionately normal on Earth. Can you take us through that?

Loay Elbasyouni, senior director engineering at Astrodyne TDI: [00:02:21] The propellers are several times bigger, to be able to create more lift in the Mars atmosphere. They spin quite a bit faster than a helicopter on Earth. They are in fact about five times faster than what a propeller spins on Earth, which is about 500 rpm. So, that creates its own challenges in terms of when you’re spinning that fast. That motion starts making the propellers tear themselves apart. So the propellers have to be super strong and super light.

Andrea Macdonald, founder ideaXme: [00:03:00] There were also challenges with temperature. I believe that nearest the equator, the temperature in the summer on Mars is 20 degrees centigrade, if I’m remembering correctly, and near the pole, less than -100 centigrade. That presented challenges as well, didn’t it?

Loay Elbasyouni, senior director engineering at Astrodyne TDI: [00:03:22] Yes, but the exact site chosen was one of the warmer sites during the summer months. The temperature at the height of day is actually about 0C, and at the low of the day, it could be as -30C. But, you know, most days we practiced in about -100 C degrees. So, the original flight happened, I think it was measured about -80C. So that presented a lot of challenges. Most electronic designs for Earth don’t work below negative -40C.

Loay Elbasyouni, senior director engineering at Astrodyne TDI: [00:04:05] So you are correct, Mars temperatures definitely created big challenges. It was especially important to make it lightweight because we could not use a specialized space product. We had to come up with a lot of different methods to address the issues of temperature.

Andrea Macdonald, founder ideaXme: [00:04:36] Can you take us through some of those methods. We don’t just have laypeople, people outside engineering listening and watching ideaXme. We have experts and engineers and scientists across the world who follow us. I’m sure they will be interested in some of the technical details.

Loay Elbasyouni, senior director engineering at Astrodyne TDI: [00:04:56] Yeah, honestly, I’m limited in regards to speaking about the technicality. I share only what’s out in the public domain. So, I mean, there’s a lot of different methods just from my experience, working on other projects and my experience as an engineer. There’s thermal chambers where you can actually run things a lot colder. Also, some of it comes from just studying the electronics. Most storage temperature in any electronics could go down to -55C. So there is nothing really documented by the supplier that goes below that. A lot of the time we have to, if you only want to hit below that, run some tests and store it and the method of the technology we’re using.

Loay Elbasyouni, senior director engineering at Astrodyne TDI: [00:05:40] It’s about thermodynamics. The way you shock something into temperature is important. As long as you don’t shock it all at once, then it creates a high difference like Delta T in between. One metal to another metal, like silicone to the metal allows for the electronics to work better and is then less likely to get damaged from the temperature shock. That’s why you have to really worry about that. You have to validate this method before actually putting the electronics in the temperature chamber.

Andrea Macdonald, founder ideaXme: [00:06:16] What were the materials, if you’re allowed to talk about it? What was the Ingenuity helicopter made out of to make it so light, for example?

Loay Elbasyouni, senior director engineering at Astrodyne TDI: [00:06:27] So the helicopter is mainly made out of carbon fiber. The company at the time almost handmade everything using carbon fibre sheets. That’s what the body is made out of. We tried to minimize any hardware that would add weight — every single component from the motor, the motor controller to the servers and the flight computer. Everything was chosen to be light.

Andrea Macdonald, founder ideaXme: [00:07:03] You worked on the power electronics amongst many things on this project. Can you take us through the solar powered engineering?

Loay Elbasyouni, senior director engineering at Astrodyne TDI: [00:07:18] I did not work on the solar panels themselves. The solar panel charges up like a battery, which is something chosen by the JPL NASA team. I have had experience working on solar panels. You have to control the solar panel output power from using what we call peak power tracking. So you track the highest point of power to be able to get the maximum energy out of a solar cell. And so, you control the voltage and current out of the solar panel and then you create a battery charge to charge up energy into a battery, like, for example, a lithium ion battery.

Andrea Macdonald, founder ideaXme: [00:08:03] Mars Ingenuity helicopter has made a number of flights. The last one of which actually took a photograph of the rover. Another flight is planned today pretty imminently. What’s the objective today?

Loay Elbasyouni, senior director engineering at Astrodyne TDI: [00:08:21] So, the main objectives of the helicopter is to collect flight data and to be able to demonstrate flight. So the helicopter is considered to have met all its targets and has exceeded what it was originally designed to do. So far it’s been successful in every single mission. Pictures are something extra. I mean, it’s really cool to get, a bird’s eye view of the rover which is something we’ve never seen. I really hope that they get closer to the rover so we can get some cooler shots of a bird’s eye views of the rover. Actually, right this minute, you know, as we are talking, they are probably downloading the data. So I look forward to seeing the data coming out. There’s going to be one more mission after this one coming up.

Andrea Macdonald, founder ideaXme: [00:09:13] Could you explain to the audience how the helicopter was actually delivered to Mars?

Loay Elbasyouni, senior director engineering at Astrodyne TDI: [00:09:22] The helicopter was embedded inside of the rover. So through the mechanisms in the belly of the rover. And the rover was part of the rocket that took it to Mars. When it landed, you’ve probably seen some of these videos, it came down into the atmosphere via a parachute system. This delivery is very “shocking”, that is, there was a lot of vibration and shock, which we had to take into account when we designed the helicopter and then of course there is the rise in external temperature as it is being delivered. These are just some of the challenges. There was the challenge of dropping the helicopter. They had to drop it down because it was attached. They had to drop 2 legs at a time. It took several days to do that. And then the rover basically dropped it to the surface and drove off. And I mean, several days later, the first flight took place.

Andrea Macdonald, founder ideaXme: [00:10:24] I understand that there was a slight software glitch before the first flight?

Loay Elbasyouni, senior director engineering at Astrodyne TDI: [00:10:32] Yes, there was a timer, which timed out in the transition from the simulation mode to the flight mode, which is something that the NASA JPL team worked really hard to solve. I was really worried. I thought we made it to Mars. But I really wanted it to fly so I could say that I was part of the team, the first team to fly a helicopter over Mars. It is historic! I think they had a couple of plans. I think the first plan worked. So I mean, they still had a plan B. This is what I know.

Andrea Macdonald, founder ideaXme: [00:11:25] The distance from Earth to Mars is on average, I think, 140 million miles. It’s an awfully long way away. And further exploration and habitation of the Moon which is of course closer to Earth will be seen as a pit stop to exploring Mars further. What do you think the future holds in as far as the next steps for Ingenuity and Mars exploration overall?

Loay Elbasyouni, senior director engineering at Astrodyne TDI: [00:11:58] After the final mission, the data will be utilized to study flights in general in light atmospheres, which could help the development of future helicopters sent to Mars by NASA, possibly even other organizations. A helicopter could provide a lot more coverage and a lot faster way of moving because the rover is limited and can’t get close to a cliff, you know, you cannot really explore easily. There are a lot of areas and situations in which a helicopter could help. You could send out a scout helicopter that could do mapping for a rover in the future. Also, it could be seen on a lot of other planets. At the current time, I think NASA’s working on what they call the clipper program, which I think is something that they’re sending to the to a moon called Titan. That’s another project which this data could help with.

Andrea Macdonald, founder ideaXme: [00:13:26] Do you have any plans to travel to any of these outer planets or the Moon? There was the dearMoon project recently launched where artists were invited to apply to fly to the Moon. Do you have any interest in this? I mean, I know applications have now closed, but before we started speaking in this interview offline, you mentioned that as a kid and young adult, you were also an artist. So you do combine arts and science. Pity that you didn’t apply maybe? But are there any plans to actually try to get a space on one of these commercial flights?

Loay Elbasyouni, senior director engineering at Astrodyne TDI: [00:14:08] I want to make sure that I would be able to come back. I wouldn’t go on a one way mission, to Mars, (laughs). I love our planet. I think our planet is blessed. I have huge love and respect for our Earth. I think we should protect it in any way possible. I think it’d be exciting to be able to go to visit the Moon, or even go into space to see the Earth from there. I imagine myself maybe one day being able to do that.

Andrea Macdonald, founder ideaXme: [00:14:48] So we’ve spoken about the Ingenuity helicopter’s journey from Earth to Mars, can we now talk about your journey, which is even more extraordinary in some respects. Can you talk us through your journey to this point in time?

Loay Elbasyouni, senior director engineering at Astrodyne TDI: [00:15:12] I was born in Germany. My dad was a medical school student in Germany. He finished school. We went back to Gaza, and we got stuck there for some reason or another. I was about five and a half years old and I remember moving when I was first in Palestine, I was really shocked by the Israeli military occupation. I had to live through that from a young age. I remember my first day at my school. All the kids from school I saw were running into this house. I was wondering why all the kids were running. I thought there was a lion on the street. I looked to see what was outside. I kept poking my head out of the door to see what was out there, what was scaring these kids so much. And then I saw Israeli military. I thought the military was supposed to protect us. I was confused.

Loay Elbasyouni, senior director engineering at Astrodyne TDI: [00:16:31] I grew up to discover that life is a little bit different. I’m not a German anymore. I’m not actually German, I just happened to be born there. And so I went to an elementary school, a United Nations Relief and Refugee Relief Agency fund school. I studied grade one to nine and then I went to high school. I lived through the first intifada, which was the first Palestinian uprising. It was a really rough time. We could not attend school because there were a lot of strike days and curfews. So a lot of time I had to self-educate. I always loved to do things with my hands. I painted. I sculpted. I built things. I always wanted to do almost everything. People asked me: What do you really want?

Loay Elbasyouni, senior director engineering at Astrodyne TDI: [00:17:32] I wanted to be a pilot or an aeronautical engineer — all at the same time. I wanted to be an architect. I wanted to be an agricultural engineer. So I worked on so many things.

Loay Elbasyouni, senior director engineering at Astrodyne TDI: [00:17:45] I used to fix everything that was broken. I think I tore our tv apart. I designed an antenna. I was designing antennas out of kitchenware, like aluminium foil. And I did my master’s degree focusing on this — I actually designed an antenna for my masters.

Loay Elbasyouni, senior director engineering at Astrodyne TDI: [00:18:10] I studied English in Gaza and I applied for several universities and was accepted. I was accepted by a couple of universities and one of them offered me reduced tuition. I ended up only going there for one semester because they did not have an electrical engineering program. So I transferred to the University of Kentucky and my dad used to help me partially with the tuition. It was really expensive. In the year 2000, we had some difficulties — it was during the second uprising and we had a lot of trees uprooted and my dad lost a big part of his income and he could not help me anymore. So, I couldn’t figure out how to plan. He told me this one week before my college started. I could not pay the tuition. I couldn’t register. So I had to drop out.

Loay Elbasyouni, senior director engineering at Astrodyne TDI: [00:19:08] I used to work between 80 to 100 hours a week. I worked from 10 a.m. to 12pm at Subway making sandwiches and after that I bought a car and started delivering pizza. From 2001 until 2002 I was working so hard. And then I thought: Wait! I didn’t come here to be a pizza delivery guy. I need to go back to school.

Loay Elbasyouni, senior director engineering at Astrodyne TDI: [00:19:37] I couldn’t go back to the University of Kentucky because I owed them some money. So I decided to transfer to another university. I went to the University of Louisville and studied there. I finished my bachelors from 2002 to 2004, and then I continued and I did my master’s from 2004 to 2005. After that, I started working as an engineer. I always had a strong belief that I wanted to change the environment. We have to be the change we want to see in the world. I’d like to do that through engineering and science and create different avenues for people. I’d like to take people away from oil and move them to other sources of energy.

Loay Elbasyouni, senior director engineering at Astrodyne TDI: [00:20:25] My first job was working on the tyre monitoring system that changed the tyres on heavy trucks and made the trucks 20% more efficient. Then I went to work on electric vehicles. I was working with General Electric for a few years. I was part of the G Motors and so I did the power electronics for them, which was basically designing the motor controllers and stuff like that. Then I went into the mass electric vehicle market with several different start-ups. I moved to Boston and then from Boston, I moved to California. I worked for a couple of companies there and then in 2012 most of the electric vehicle companies went out of business, with the exception of Tesla at the time and I just didn’t want to move to San Francisco. There was one electric vehicle charging company that had an electric airplane company division that actually had some hydrogen planes and solar planes. So, I applied and I got a job. I was senior staff power and electronics engineer in 2014, and we ended up getting the NASA helicopter project. At the time, believe it or not, most people didn’t know the fact that it was called Leonardo, that it is named after Leonardo da Vinci.

Andrea Macdonald, founder ideaXme: [00:21:54] That is very interesting indeed. The organization through which you worked in order to work on the Ingenuity helicopter Project, I think was called Aero Environment?

Loay Elbasyouni, senior director engineering at Astrodyne TDI: [00:22:09] Yes, yes, I mean, I worked for them until the mid 2018, that’s when I finished with most of the electronics, like flight hardware, and then I kind of pursued my career after that. Right now, I’m senior director of engineering. I work for a company called Astrodyne TDI. We are a power electronic company, so we do anything from motor controllers to power supplies. We serve almost every industry, including the aerospace industry.

Andrea Macdonald, founder ideaXme: [00:22:43] At this point in the interview, we ask our guests with whom they’ve connected richly with in order to move their lives and careers forward which is particularly apt for you given your pretty gruelling journey and the hard work you’ve had to put in. It would be really interesting to know who has helped you along the way, maybe even beyond your professors. Who has emotionally supported you? Who has supported you outside the system, above and beyond what would be considered their responsibility?

Loay Elbasyouni, senior director engineering at Astrodyne TDI: [00:23:29] The main person who influenced me and is my great role model is my dad. My story is really nothing compared to my dad. My dad was born in 1948, he got injured when he was seven days old. He finished high school during the 1967 war and his high school was delayed by two years so he had to re-take his final exams. He worked in the groves trying to save his money to go study in Germany to be a doctor.

Loay Elbasyouni, senior director engineering at Astrodyne TDI: [00:24:11] He also worked in a train station, just loading trains. I remember one story he told me that he used to fall asleep in his autopsy class and the doctor was like, how can you keep getting the highest grade in the whole medical school and you’re falling asleep in my class. I really want to know your story. So my dad was like: oh, I work all night in the train station. I load the trains to be able to pay for my living. So the doctor wrote a letter, I think it was to the prime minister or the chancellor at the time, and got him a full scholarship to finish his medical school.

Loay Elbasyouni, senior director engineering at Astrodyne TDI: [00:25:00] To me that was an inspiration and all through my career, a lot of times it was to do with myself, I had to really push the limits. My dad definitely helped me financially at different points in different ways as well as my mom. When I first went to college, somehow I ended up living in an apartment that was owned by a Palestinian. I had an accident, a car accident, and I couldn’t even work and deliver pizza. I stayed at home for several months and I literally didn’t pay my rent during that time. I could have ended up homeless. Then when I went to my second university and the same thing happened. I ended up living with another guy who understood my situation and helped me out. A lot of my professors supported me. I actually won a scholarship award during my second year at the University of Louisville and I got onto some work study program also.

Loay Elbasyouni, senior director engineering at Astrodyne TDI: [00:26:01] One of the professors helped me financially and helped me pay part of the tuition fees. I consider him like my father. He helped me in many different ways. I was far away from my family and when I got sick, he took care of me. There’s also my friends, we motivate each other. My friend Mohammed was very inspirational, he ended up transferring and coming to the University of Louisville with me. He also graduated after he experienced similar struggles to me. He was studying at New Jersey institution of Technology and the tuition got so high he could not afford it, so he transferred to Louisville and he finished from there.

Loay Elbasyouni, senior director engineering at Astrodyne TDI: [00:26:51] It’s hard to remember everyone, you know. My [00:26:58] brother Yassin [00:26:59] helped me out. He’s my youngest brother and I remember for several months I could not pay my car payments and he was sending me money to pay for my car. So, it’s been a long journey.

Andrea Macdonald, founder ideaXme: [00:27:12] I bet you’ll never forget these people who helped you get to this point.

Loay Elbasyouni, senior director engineering at Astrodyne TDI: [00:27:18] No, I’ll never forget, and I’m very thankful and grateful for every single one of them. I like to mention their names and tell them that I really appreciate every single thing they have done for me.

Andrea Macdonald, founder ideaXme: [00:27:31] What does the future hold? What do you want to do with the rest of your life? Offline, you mentioned that you really want to help create a better world. You’re not just interested in high technology and engineering. You have broad interests. You’re interested in art, but you also are driven by wanting to encourage people to connect and create a better world together.

Loay Elbasyouni, senior director engineering at Astrodyne TDI: [00:28:02] So I do my social duty. I speak and mentor students, that’s just one thing. Honestly, regarding my future, I’ve always been an entrepreneur from a young age. I probably had my first business when I was 12 years old. I used to sell candy to the kids in the neighbourhood. I used to trade in fruits when I was like 16, I had a whole farm. I’ve always wanted to start my own company and I attempted that several years back. I almost got funding back then, but then in 2012, things got really difficult in the alternative energy market in terms of funding.

Loay Elbasyouni, senior director engineering at Astrodyne TDI: [00:29:00] I’ll probably continue on that path. I’m actually planning to start a company in the future, it would definitely have to do with an alternative mode of transportation and an alternative energy of some sort. In that way, I really believe that we can change the world. I really believe in something Nikola Tesla said. He came from a poor place in Serbia and he always believed that he can change the world by providing everybody with power and electricity. He thought power and electricity would provide people light, provide people with jobs, and bring them out of poverty.

Loay Elbasyouni, senior director engineering at Astrodyne TDI: [00:29:40] To some degree, we can thank him for everything we have today and he was a big innovator, but I don’t think he succeeded in his mission. There’s a lot of places that still do not have access to power, it’s just kind of sad. We even have power outages in the United States. I think there is a lot of work that needs to be done there. Gaza has a big problem with power shifts, you get a six hour day of power depending on what neighbourhood you live in. For example, one thing I’ve been thinking about is helping to bring more power to Palestinians and people in remote places or just working in electric aviation or something like that.

Andrea Macdonald, founder ideaXme: [00:30:36] One final question before we go. Could you provide some advice and inspiration for kids and students who are struggling, maybe from poor backgrounds or young people who have a tough life in a different way, to keep going?

Loay Elbasyouni, senior director engineering at Astrodyne TDI: [00:30:58] Everything started with a dream, everything started with a painting. The painting right behind me is something my friend gave to me and he called it Ingenuity Mars. It doesn’t have the helicopter on it, but he imagined there is music and a band playing on Mars and there was a helicopter doing the laser show. So, all of us start with a dream. First of all, you need to have a dream and you need to have imagination, even if they’re unrealistic, and then you pursue this.

Loay Elbasyouni, senior director engineering at Astrodyne TDI: [00:31:31] Just to give you an example, the helicopter flying on Mars was a mission impossible, and from the impossible, by believing and dreaming about something impossible, we are able to make it possible. I think that should be the method for anybody. No matter where you are, no matter what you do, I think you should have the right to dream and then you should work on your dream and never give up on whatever avenue it’s going to take you on to make whatever your dream is a reality. I mean, nothing is impossible.

Andrea Macdonald, founder ideaXme: [00:32:01] Loay Elbasyouni, thank you very much for your time. It’s been an absolute pleasure and thank you for moving the human story forward.

Loay Elbasyouni, senior director engineering at Astrodyne TDI: [00:32:16] Thank you. It’s really nice talking to you.

Every attempt was made to make this transcript as close to the original audio as possible.

If you enjoyed this interview check out our recent interview with Dr Samer El Sayari Space Architect.

Credit: Andrea Macdonald founder of ideaXme.

Andrea Macdonald, founder ideaXme

Find ideaXme across the internet including on iTunes, SoundCloud, Radio Public, TuneIn Radio, I Heart Radio, YouTube, Vimeo, Google Podcasts, Spotify and more.