Sky of Dreams
By Kelly Rembold
Alumna Annie Cheng’s innovation takes flight at NASA
For Carnegie Mellon University alumna Annie Cheng, the sky has always been the limit.
She is the deputy principal engineer of Urban Air Mobility Airspace subproject at NASA, and she’s also a licensed private airplane pilot with a love of flying.
“I love being in the sky,” Annie says. “I fell in love with seeing places, and when you fly, you are able to go anywhere.”
Unlike other aviation professionals though, her airborne career started somewhere very different from a cockpit.
I love being in the sky. I fell in love with seeing places, and when you fly, you are able to go anywhere.Annie Cheng
Curiosity Takes the Controls
Annie received a bachelor’s degree in computer science with a minor in business administration from the University of British Columbia in 2002.
From there, she started looking for a graduate program that combined both of her interests. She chose the yearlong Master of Information Systems Management program through Heinz College of Information Systems and Public Policy.
“CMU was a perfect fit for me,” Annie says. “I liked the aspect of learning how to use technology to solve problems and understanding how the technology enables better business.”
After completing the program in 2003, Annie weighed her options for the future.
“I was looking at the world with bright, wide eyes trying to figure out what I wanted to do,” Annie says. “I ended up in trading on Wall Street, and I loved it for a while.”
Eventually, she wanted to explore new horizons.
“I started wondering what I could contribute to the world,” Annie says. “I was reading a lot on the side, and I started falling in love with airplanes. I was never exposed to aviation before that, so I decided to take a course.”
Annie enrolled in an online course through the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics.
“That’s when I realized aviation was something I could do,” she says. “I had an engineering background and knew that I could learn it.”
Annie went on to receive a master’s degree in aeronautics and astronautics engineering from Purdue University. In 2008, she started her first job in the aviation industry as an aviation consultant.
CMU was a perfect fit for me. I liked the aspect of learning how to use technology to solve problems and understanding how the technology enables better business.Annie Cheng
At NASA, Annie leads a large team of researchers who are working on the development of electric air taxis. The taxis are part of NASA’s initiative to create “a safe and efficient system for air passenger and cargo transportation within an urban area.”
“I provide guidance on how to tie multiple areas of research together to make this idea a reality,” Annie says. “Part of my role is coordinating with everyone involved — not just the technology piece but also between the aviation industry and the government.”
Annie enjoys being a leader, and it’s also a challenge.
“I’ve had to learn how to guide a team with a lot of different ideas and make sure we're all on the same page,” she says. “I put everyone in a room and try to engage them in a way that makes them come together. It’s fun, but not easy.”
Annie uses lessons she learned at Heinz College to help her succeed as a leader.
“The program was a mix of courses, so it created an environment where I had to work with different groups of people,” Annie says. “The group projects helped me learn how to do that, and I really liked it.”
One of her toughest classes left her with a vital experience.
“It was the negotiation class, and I didn’t do very well in it,” Annie says. “But it taught me that there is a method to negotiation. In hindsight, I think that course opened my eyes to help people reach a consensus.”
I really want to help push this along, so that it [the air taxi] becomes reality. I know it's probably going to be strange at first, but I want people to see it as a new way to fly and understand the benefit to society.Annie Cheng
Flying Toward the Future
When her aviation career began, Annie never dreamed she’d be working on electric air taxis.
She describes the taxis as “a hybrid helicopter and airplane” but much quieter than a helicopter.
The taxis are designed for city centers and other densely populated areas. They can take off from a rooftop and carry passengers or packages to nearby destinations.
“I really want to help push this along, so that it becomes reality,” she says. “I know it's probably going to be strange at first, but I want people to see it as a new way to fly and understand the benefit to society.”
When the time comes, she’ll be one of the first people behind the controls.
“A few different companies have let me fly their simulators,” Annie says. “They said I could pilot one someday, and I'm definitely waiting for it.”