Getting to know Wayfinder Aerospace Systems Engineer, Anne-Claire Le Bihan

“Working on Wayfinder enables me to leverage my passion for aeronautics and my experience with path planning and controls as well as machine learning to design autonomous flight technology that will change the future of flight.”

What initially sparked your interest in autonomous flight?

The first thing is aviation. That’s always been a passion of mine. My mom was an aerospace engineer, and we often went to Toulouse as a family, where we would visit the Ariane rocket and all those very cool, very old planes. It was a lot of fun, and both my mom and dad were always passionate about aviation, which made me more interested in the field. Whenever we boarded an aircraft, my parents would explain how planes are designed and worked, why it was safe to fly, how the wings were bearing all our weight, and things like that. And so since I was maybe 7, I knew I wanted to work in aeronautics and this has not changed at all. It’s been my whole life.

Why did you join the Wayfinder team?

I worked at an aviation startup before, where we were also building solutions for autonomous flight, and it was really cool. Amazing startup. Amazing work environment. However, because it was a startup, they were always trying to find funding, and that can be hard—especially in aviation. Acubed being an Airbus-funded company has more resources and was the perfect fit.

The Airbus name means a lot in the field of aviation, and the company has many strong relationships. Designing airplanes, then building and certifying them takes a lot of time, and once a plane is in service, it flies passengers for sometimes up to fifty years, so it’s important to have long-lasting relationships with suppliers, government agencies and other stakeholders. There is built-in credibility when you’re working with Airbus, and that makes it so much easier to interact with them. Also, the fact that we are part of Airbus means that whenever we have a question, there is always someone who can either answer it or direct us to the right person. We have access to many relevant resources.

And, simply put, working on Wayfinder enables me to leverage my passion for aeronautics and my experience with path planning and controls as well as machine learning to design autonomous flight technology that will change the future of flight.

Tell us more about your role with autonomous flight, here at Wayfinder?

I completed a Masters of Science in Applied Physics at Ecole Polytechnique in France and then a second Masters of Science in Aeronautics at Stanford, then started my career as a control engineer. In my first job, I transitioned from control design to path planning and then to autonomous flight software design. So I have a background in aeronautics, especially path planning and controls, software and machine learning as well as autonomous systems. As a System Design Engineer, it is critical to understand all the parts of your system and when I arrived at Acubed I already had broad knowledge and expertise in detect-and-avoid technologies. All of that fits in well with the work I am doing as a System Design Engineer: designing the architecture of the autonomous flight systems that we are developing at Wayfinder.

What’s the most exciting airplane design challenge that you’ve overcome at Wayfinder?

We designed the concept version of a detect-and-avoid system architecture, which leveraged machine learning for a future urban air mobility vehicle, and it was amazing. It was a full week of very intense work with specialists from Europe, followed by multiple weeks of reviews. I designed the system and then performed the failure hazard analysis. We tackled a number of interesting questions:

  • What type of sensors can we use?
  • What are the drawbacks of each piece of hardware?
  • How can we integrate with current systems?
  • How do we certify the system and ensure that it fills all the requirements?

There are a number of requirements for autonomous UAM vehicles in terms of weight, size, etc., which made the project both challenging and rewarding.

Can you give us an example of a challenge that you’re working to overcome now?

This isn’t really related to autonomous vehicles, but I think the most interesting challenge is designing the data collection system. Basically, it’s a system that we plan to put on commercial aircraft—and not UAM vehicles—to give pilots better visibility of their surroundings. But also, because we want to put that on an aircraft that is already certified, the system cannot change the structure of the aircraft and there are a lot of challenges in trying to integrate a new system within an existing aircraft.

What advice would you give to a young person who wants to pursue a career in autonomous vehicles, and especially young women who are interested in engineering?

Stay hungry and curious. I think the fact that I’ve been curious my whole life makes me a good System Design Engineer because my curiosity has pushed me to learn about a wide range of topics, and now I have enough expertise that I can understand many different systems. Hunger and curiosity are the top qualities that any engineer can have. For young women, I would also add how important it is to trust yourself. It’s not always easy as a woman in engineering to trust yourself and know that you are a great engineer. Confidence and being aware of your own value are key.

Being a female engineer is not always very easy because there aren’t that many of us. I would say the hardest thing is to be the only woman in your company, which is definitely not the case here. I’m very fortunate to work at a company like Acubed where there are a lot of women on staff. Acubed really values diversity, which is great, and I genuinely appreciate the fact that everyone here is given the same voice—no one has ever discounted my ideas because of my gender. Respect and inclusion are core values at Acubed, and that makes the job a lot easier.

We asked Anne-Claire what she likes to do outside of work, she gave us a laundry list of activities including ice skating, hiking, playing tennis, singing, skiing, and having fun with friends. When asked whether she prefers snow skiing or water skiing, Anne-Claire very quickly responded with “snow.” She’s only been water skiing once in her life, and found that she was “totally unable” to keep her grip on the tow line. However, to be fair, she was only seven-years-old at the time. We’re betting that Anne-Claire would do pretty well if she tried it again today!