Designing avionics circuitry for drones
By Debra Werner|October 2019
Michael Seitz, 26, electrical engineer at AeroVironment
Growing up in Wooster, Ohio, Michael Seitz kept a box of parts from appliances and devices he dismantled. Although he never managed to reassemble the pieces into new contraptions, he enjoyed trying to fit them together. Now, Seitz designs and tests avionics circuitry for AeroVironment, the Monrovia, California, company that builds the Raven, Wasp and Puma fixed-wing drones for the U.S. military, and the Hawk 30, a solar-powered unmanned flying wing designed to operate for months at altitudes of 65,000 feet.
Landing a job
I picked electrical engineering as a major because it seemed to have a broad range of opportunities in different industries, and it was something I had an interest in but hadn’t found any good resources to teach myself. While at the University of Southern California, I volunteered in a 3D-printing lab, which gave me some physical exercise of the theory I was learning in class. AeroVironment usually had a booth at the Viterbi Career & Internship Expo, and I thought their displays and pamphlets were some of the coolest ones around. The concept of autonomous aircraft was really exciting to me. After speaking with them every semester for four years, I got a call asking me to interview for an associate electrical engineering position.
From desk to flight tests
I’ve been here a little over four years now. I’ve been able to cover a lot of aspects of this design process, from prototyping and printed circuit board design to testing and productionizing a variety of systems, including flight controls, battery management systems and ground station communication. There have been plenty of other times when I was out in the field assisting in flight tests or in the workshop building test fixtures. There’s a good amount of variety in what I get to do. The balance between desk and field work and the fast-paced environment definitely keeps it interesting.
Aviation in 2050
Electric power systems and autonomy will play a huge role. This not only allows for a decreased reliance upon fossil fuels, but also a possibility for longer endurance, as we have seen from AeroVironment’s previous solar-powered designs, since there is no added weight from a pilot and the aircraft refuels in the air. This opens up a lot of possibilities in the commercial marketplace. The skies will inevitably be more accessible to a much larger portion of the population. The growing feasibility of electric aircraft and the increased autonomy in control systems will make for greater reliability and decrease the potential for human error. While a good understanding of aerodynamic principles and aviation practices will still be important, years of pilot experience will not be necessary in order to get off the ground. Regulation will certainly have to play a larger role in this development in order to ensure the safety of these future systems, but I see the somewhat recent explosion of hobby and commercial drone usage to be an example of what we have to expect going forward.