Rhys Phillips is a research engineer at Airbus Group Innovations, where he works in the lightning and electrostatics team. As an active science communicator, QEPrize Ambassador and STEM ambassador, Rhys regularly gives public talks and has even received awards from STEMNet and the Institute of Physics for his public engagement work. We met him this month to find out a little more about what it takes to keep planes in the air.
Rhys, tell us what you do as a research engineer…
I work in a team that focuses primarily on two areas of research. The first is lightning protection for the next generation of aircraft. The second is developing an understanding of the fundamental physics of the electrostatic environment during fuel tank filling inside aircraft.
What does that mean for us as passengers?
Well, I imagine most members of the public will be happy to know that when planes are struck by lightning, they and the plane will be safe! Of course, planes already have protection against this threat, but we are trying to find more efficient ways to protect against lightning while also reducing the weight of the aircraft. This results in more fuel efficient planes which are better for the environment and cheaper to fly.
Is it dangerous for an aeroplane to be hit by lightning?
It isn’t dangerous and it happens all the time. Metal planes conduct electricity, so the current from the lightning bolt can travel through the metallic skin of the aircraft without causing any damage. No, we are making ‘composite’ aircraft, which are much less conductive than aluminium, so we need to make sure the materials are protected to handle the lightning currents. This is typically achieved with a thin, metallic mesh-like material embedded near the surface of the composite.
That sounds like a pretty niche area of engineering. How did you get into it?
By being in the right place at the right time. I studied mathematics and physics at Cardiff University, then joined an Airbus graduate scheme in Newport. A corporate research centre was opened on site the same week that I joined and I asked about doing a graduate placement there. I was placed in the lightning team and they haven’t been able to get rid of me since!
What does your typical work day look like?
It varies a lot. There is a mix day-to-day of witnessing testing in the lab, analysing results, performing simulations, writing reports, project management and attending meetings. We also work in a multi-national team so there are fairly frequent trips to France too.
What would you say has been your proudest moment?
That’s a difficult one! The work we do is very rewarding and picking out a single proudest moment is tricky. I’ve been lucky enough to win several awards for my science communication activities that I’m particularly proud of though.
Do you have a favourite thing about working at Airbus?
We have a strong tradition of bringing cakes into our office…
Well, you would be welcome to swing by the QEPrize office any time! Are there any parts of your job that you don’t enjoy?
In the last few months the most frustrating part of the job has been trying to deal with delays in test campaigns that are entirely out of our control. There’s always some unforeseen circumstance to scupper your best laid plans!
If you could give any piece of advice to young people about getting into engineering, what would it be?
Go for it! And don’t worry too much if you’re not sure what branch of engineering you are interested in. There is a big exciting world of engineering careers out there and I think opportunities such as apprenticeships and graduate schemes that give you a chance to try out different skills and projects are ideal for helping you to make those sort of choices.
How important do you think it is to encourage people to think about a career in STEM?
It’s vital. We know we don’t have enough engineers to sustain our economy in the future. We know we don’t have enough school children interested in STEM subjects. In particular, we don’t have enough girls interested in engineering. We need to change these things and the only way to do so is to encourage children at a young age. However, I also think it has become apparent in recent years that we need to do more engagement with the parents and public as a whole to help reinforce these messages.
Who are your engineering heroes?
Alick Hale-Munro. He was the chief sound engineer of the original 1978 radio series of The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and was responsible for creating the sound of Marvin’s (the paranoid android) voice by stringing audio tape around the studio. In fiction, Howard Wolowitz – he gets a bad reputation in The Big Bang Theory for being the engineer in a group of scientists – but he’s the first one to get married and start a family, and the only one to have gone into space…
We’ve seen from your website that you have quite an impressive CV. Tell us a bit more about what you do outside of engineering.
I am also a broadcaster with weekly science and jazz radio shows that are broadcast on a number of radio stations around the world. I’m also a trumpeter and a caller of ceilidhs. I spend a lot of time volunteering for the Institution of Engineering and Technology too.
If engineering hadn’t worked out for you, what was your plan B?
I don’t think I really knew what I wanted to do. I remember joking that being a chocolate taster or roller coaster tester would be fun though.