Aarav Chavda ‘17: Bridging the Gap

One of three things draws most students to Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering (MAE), said Aarav Chavda: cars, planes, or rockets. “I was a plane guy.”  

In third grade, Chavda and a friend were obsessed with planes, and together they created an elaborate plot to convince their parents to buy a helicopter to fly them to school. While that did not work, Chavda nevertheless later convinced his parents to allow him to pursue his pilot’s license despite their concerns for safety.

“I blame Bugs Bunny,” alluding to a cartoon image of a plane engine stopping and the plane dropping vertically to its demise, “but the aerodynamic reality is that the plane can glide for quite a while,” Chavda said. “Dives, steep turns, and rudder control… it’s exhilarating. It’s essentially designing your own roller coaster; you can do exactly what you want in the air.” 

This determination – and staying on course – not only contributed to Chavda earning his wings at 16, it also carried over into his interests within MAE, leading to his pursuit of a patent in nanomagnetics, his enrollment in the robotics certificate program, and his plan for the senior thesis project.

“Aarav is very organized, and effective at reaching a decision,” said Tony Jin, one of his senior thesis partners. When deciding on potential ideas for a senior thesis project, for example, Chavda narrowed it down to their current project, took notes on their progress, and handled the communication with MAE staff. 

Having worked with drones during all four years at Princeton, Chavda – together with Jin and another friend from Electrical Engineering, James Almeida – chose a thesis project that will modify a drone to develop a system with infinite flight time.  

“The biggest problem with flight systems today is battery life,” explains Chavda. The goal is that when their modified drone’s battery gets low, it will land for 15 seconds, swap the spent battery for a charged one, and then take off again. In addition to modifying the drone, the project requires building charging stations to which the drone must navigate and land upon in the correct orientation.  The team chose Professor Andrew Houck as their advisor.  

While his flying hobby contributed to Chavda’s landing in MAE, he hadn’t considered pursuing robotics until the end of his freshman fall semester, following his exposure to many of the department’s information sessions, lectures, and informal departmental get-togethers. The Explore Engineering information session, in particular, was filled with robots. “There were robots that transformed its wheels; there were ones that could climb walls; there were so many very cool things that I got very interested in robotics - I joined the robotics club, signed up for the Program in Robotics and Intelligent Systems (certificate) and, following a Princeton job fair, interned for the government building robots,” said Chavda.

One of the more notable lectures for Chavda was given by Raffaello D’Andrea, a robotics professor at ETH Zurich. “D’Andrea is famous for building a self-assembling chair, designing a system for coordinating complex and cooperative quadcopter motion, and Cubli, a cube that can jump up, balance on a corner, and ‘walk,’ all via reaction wheels within the cube,” he said.

Chavda gradually became concerned with the gap between what we can do (development) and what we adopt in technology. “I want to bridge that gap,” he said. While we are building great things, Chavda questions why we are not utilizing them.  Some of the reasons are cost, risk, and unfamiliarity.

Eventually, Chavda wants to develop or lead a robotics company, preferably in the household space. “Robots have so much potential to further improve how we live,” he said. “They can save us time, money, or some combination of both – extremely important to elevating standard of living.”

One way to save time in the classroom is to not have to manually erase a chalkboard – which can “preserve a continuous learning experience,” according to a marketing brief for an electromagnetic self-erasing chalkboard. Chavda and his classmate, Isaac Ilivicky, came up with this idea to improve the standard chalkboard that’s been unchanged in approximately the last 100 years – from the dust inducing, charcoal gray display board that requires manual erasure to one that would erase entirely by the press of a button – and eventually to pursue a patent. The two undergraduates aimed to leverage the principles of magnetism to achieve “complete, immediate, and clear erasure.” Following research into professors’ respective specialties, Ilivicky and Chavda approached Professor Winston Soboyejo, given his depth of knowledge and experience in materials science.

In discussing this project, Chavda said that he and Illivicky “followed a very classic Princeton approach: despite the physicality and application-oriented nature of what we wanted to accomplish, we kept our project grounded in theory. We proved the viability of the project by solving out the theory and optimizing it on paper before ever stepping into a lab. This strategy worked. After a brief stint in the theory, we had a working prototype by only the second manufacturing attempt, and the theoretical background allowed us to subsequently optimize very efficiently.”

The University agreed to start pursuing the patent for their idea, which is handled by the Office of Technology Licensing. Of the disclosures that the licensing office handles, only a very small percentage of them are by or include undergraduates, said Michael Tyerech, Senior Licensing Associate focused on technologies in engineering and the physical sciences and the person responsible for this filing.  

Upon graduation, Chavda will begin management consulting with McKinsey & Company. He is entering as a generalist and is excited to explore all industries and business experiences. By learning about many different industries, Chavda thinks he’ll discover a space where a particular robot would be useful. “I don’t know what form my robot will take,” he said, “but we’ll either have the technology for the robot or I can code it up myself.”

-Carolyn Sayre