Tamara Jean Finlay

I Want to Have a Positive Impact on the World

Tamara and Meng 2012

Profile by Mohammad Saleh, 1T5, posted Feb 2013

Tamara has an interest in aircraft, propulsion, and space exploration, and the aerospace option seemed like a natural fit for her. The multi-disciplinary nature of EngSci’s Aerospace option enabled her to focus on aerospace in her undergraduate studies, and then to easily make the transition into nuclear fusion energy at UTIAS.

Tamara dreams of realizing fusion power plants within her lifetime and has a passion for making a positive difference. Her current research revolves around plasma material interactions in tokamaks. Her focus is on removal methods of deuterium and tritium deposits on tokamak walls, a challenge faced by developing fusion power technologies. For her PhD, she will be researching hydrogen retention in tungsten and tungsten alloys for application in future tokamaks.

Tamara’s non-academic life after EngSci has largely focused on the annual international UAV Outback Search and Rescue Challenge, held in Australia since 2007. The goal is to build an unmanned aerial system (UAS) that can fly autonomously in a search pattern over a 1 x 2 km area, find a human-sized dummy, Outback Joe, using visual identification, and drop a water bottle to him. Tamara and her partner placed third in the most recent Outback Challenge.


What influenced you to transition into studying nuclear fusion energy?

Even though I also have an interest in aerospace and UAV’s, I decided to study nuclear fusion because I believe that climate change and depletion of fossil fuels are two of the world’s most urgent problems, and that developing the technology required to have fusion power plants is vital to stopping these problems. I realized I also had an interest in materials after I spent the summer after second year EngSci assisting at a lab researching photovoltaics.

How has your choice of EngSci’s Aerospace affected your skills in the UAV Outback Challenge?

I believe that choosing EngSci Aerospace, as opposed to other Aerospace programs, has had a significant impact on my current situation: the multidisciplinary aspect of EngSci Aero has allowed my team of two to accomplish as much as, if not more than, other teams of six or more in the UAV Outback Challenge, so soon after graduation. Since there were only two of us, we both had to know about a broad range of subjects in order to design and build a complete UAS.

Tell us about your team, your role, and the challenges you have faced.

I was part of a two person team named Forward Robotics, and my teammate, Meng Wei, is also an EngSci Aero grad. We were one of only 5 teams out of an initial 62 teams to make it all the way to competing at the Challenge in Australia this October. We got third prize, and we were the second team in the history of the competition to fly over the search area, return and land in one piece. Unfortunately, we had a last moment problem with our imaging system that prevented us from actually finding Outback Joe. I wrote the UAS Ground Station software, using C#, which allowed us to monitor the UAV while it was flying up to 6 km away from us (i.e. out of sight). I was also the pilot, responsible for takeoff and landing of the UAV by RC remote during the competition, and during development of the UAV autopilot I was the test pilot responsible for keeping the plane from crashing. To do this, I learned to fly RC planes starting the summer of 2011 and got my MAAC “wings” this July. I also helped with assembly and construction of the airframe: we started with an off-the-shelf model airplane (Hobbico NexStar) and customized it to meet our payload needs for the competition (i.e. so it could fly with a maximum takeoff weight of 5.5 kg).

How did you get involved with UAV design? Have you previously had any experiences similar to the Outback Challenge?

I started getting involved in UAVs in third year, where I was part of a group of four EngSci Aero students trying to design and build a UAS for a different competition called the UVS Canada Student Competition. However, we weren’t quite able to make it to the competition in 2009 and again in 2011 because we didn’t have enough experience in building model aircraft, programming and electronics, or control systems.

What are your aspirations for your career-life?

I’m not really focused on working for a particular company, or gaining a certain amount of income, I just want to be able to do work in engineering or research that will have a positive impact on the world. However, I would like to see fusion power plants become a reality within my lifetime, and I dread the thought of what will happen if nothing significant is done to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.