From delivery drones to battery-powered rockets, West Australian electrical engineer Naomi Altman works on some of the most innovative projects in the sky. And she’s hiring.
For someone who’s made a career out of building cutting-edge rockets and drones, Naomi Altman has never found it easy seeing them take to the skies.
The former avionics manager at Rocket Lab USA confesses she found it incredibly stressful to watch her technology launch. “I was so nervous,” Altman said.
“Even now… I watched the most recent [Rocket Lab launch], and I remembered why I can’t. I just never developed the constitution to be able to watch it. Even though it’s really reliable now, I can’t do it.”
Altman, a West Australian electrical engineer now based in San Francisco, worked on the lithium-ion batteries used to power Rocket Lab’s launch vehicle. The company was the first of its class to use batteries and electric motors, rather than onboard propellant, to power the propulsion system.
Altman later worked on a safety mechanism known as the flight termination system. “There’s a whole part of the rocket that actually exists somewhat separate to the main rocket, in terms of its interfaces and electronics,” she said.
The flight termination system independently monitors the health of the rocket, and can cut power to the engines if something goes wrong. Altman says there was a huge amount of work to make sure the system would survive in space. “That’s the thing that’s keeping everything else safe so that was a huge amount of testing,” she said.
Later, Altman managed Rocket Lab’s electrical engineering department, responsible for all the electronics in the rocket. “We were ramping up … moving into not just the rockets, but also satellites,” she said.
It included working on CAPSTONE, a pathfinding mission that saw Rocket Lab deliver a spacecraft into orbit around the Moon. The mission supported NASA’s Artemis program, which will land the first woman and first person of colour on the Moon.
Down to earth
In 2020, Altman shifted her focus closer to Earth with a move from Rocket Lab to drone delivery startup Zipline. She led the company’s electrical engineering and test engineering teams, before moving to her current role as head of powertrain.
Altman’s team of more than 30 engineers helped build Zipline’s recently unveiled home delivery platform – an ultra fast, extremely precise and nearly inaudible drone and delivery droid combo that the company claims will be able to handle the vast majority of home deliveries globally. Altman’s team also helped upgrade the company’s first-generation drones, which are already bringing blood, vaccines and other medical supplies to remote hospitals in Africa.
Altman says one of the biggest engineering challenges in drone delivery is keeping the system very lightweight. “Everything that doesn’t go into the aircraft weight is what we can carry,” she says. “Every single part has to be executed perfectly and be as light as possible”.
The product also has to be affordable, desirable, and meet rigorous safety and reliability targets. “We want to create products that don’t need constant maintenance, and that can fly in all different weather conditions,” Altman said.
“It’s something we take a lot of pride in. Like in Rwanda, you get super extreme weather conditions—we’ll fly happily through thunderstorms and crazy, crazy winds. Every single part in the aircraft is just extremely well engineered.”
Altman said the drones are tested in different conditions by speeding up life and aging, and exposing them to extreme temperatures, vibrations and wind tunnels. “We have to find ways to accelerate all that testing so that we can get through four years of environmental exposure in a month,” she said.
Despite being almost 15,000 kilometers from home, Altman still loves working with Australian engineers — and she’s hiring. Altman says Aussies tend to be practical, hands on and pragmatic problem solvers with a can-do attitude.
“I’ve worked in a handful of different engineering cultures,” she says. “And I do think there’s something really special about Australian engineers.”
After her experiences in California, Altman values putting physical hardware together and testing it early on. “That’s a really good sign — when you’re building and breaking things,” she says. “It means that you’re learning. As opposed to say, doing a whole lot of modelling and analysis.
“If everything’s staying on the computer, then you’re not learning as quickly as you could otherwise. Try to get it out into the real world — whatever that looks like for your product.”
Getting rockets out into the real world, however, can be unforgiving. One tiny problem can see the whole launch flop, leaving engineers scrambling to fix the problem before another attempt as soon as the next day.
“We did have a couple of launch failures in my time,” Altman said. “After something like that happens, we would have to piece together what had gone wrong, recreate it, and try and fix it in time for the next launch.
“It’s some of the best engineering I think I’ve ever done in my life. But it’s also just such an intense period. So you’re watching this flight [thinking] ‘I really hope this works’.”