Rita Fontanella: talent and passion for science and life

14 September 2020
Science as education, aerospace as a mission, sport as a school

Meet Rita Fontanella…a young engineer, experienced in avionics and navigation systems; a woman passionate about sports and horses; a rising star within Leonardo.

Born in Foggia, Rita is one of Leonardo’s most promising young aeronautical engineers. After graduating with a distinction in Aerospace Engineering at the University of Naples Federico II, she obtained a PhD in navigation systems and mission management for uncrewed air systems (UAS) at the same university, in collaboration with Imperial College of London.

She joined Leonardo, Aircraft Division, in 2019; in the same year she received a recognition in the framework of the company’s annual Innovation Award for a project on the use of artificial intelligence, entitled ‘Machine Learning Techniques for fault detection of sensors exploited for flight test activities’.

Rita is now a Flight Test Engineer for avionics and navigation systems within the M-345 programme, as well as working on the US/Spanish start-up Skydweller Aero Inc, in which Leonardo is an investor and technology partner for developing the world’s first solar-powered UAS.


 To get to know Rita better, including learning about her motivations and views on diversity in the world of aerospace, defence and security, we asked her a few questions, using the well-known format of Proust’s questionnaire:


  • The most distinctive characteristic

I consider myself a person determined to achieve the goals I set myself. And I do so with positivity, even in the face of any problem that may arise. I do not discourage myself since you can solve any problem if you face it positively.


  • Main character flaw

A difficult answer to give, because, in my opinion, the real flaws are those aspects of character that others don’t like, more than those you don’t like. For example, for the way I have always dealt with studies, I can say that I am very precise and meticulous. This leads me to deliver every project or work only when I am 100% sure, while respecting the timing. Sometimes I can be too demanding, but I consider this a positive aspect for an engineer. 


  • Heroes and Heroines

Remaining in the professional field, I feel great admiration and inspiration for the team of NASA engineers who participated in the Apollo programme. They personified team working by solving problems and even reinventing themselves. Think of the failure that involved Apollo 13I: they adopted innovative solutions, such as using the lunar module as a rescue module, in a way not foreseen by the project. I also really admire women like Katherine Johnson, who worked at NASA during the sixties pioneering mark in a traditionally masculine environment. 


  • Favourite hobby

Riding is my favorite sport and I have my own horse, Quanu della Colombaia. I’ve been horse racing for more than 20 years at a competitive level, participating in national and international competitions. I love the trust and sense of team created between horse and rider, which manifests itself in the jump of an obstacle, for example. Sport teaches you that there can be failures, but then you have to know how to return stronger. Sometimes you fall off a horse, but you always get up!


  • Dislikes

Presumption. Because you always have to question yourself. And then unfairness, also at work. You must have intellectual honesty. 


  • A motto or phrase that always accompanies you

I was always struck by Brazilian novelist and lyricist Paolo Coelho’s famous quote: “The world is in the hands of those who have the courage to dream and run the risk of living their dreams.” The first time I came across it was at university and it has accompanied me ever since, even in my professional life.


We then delved into Rita’s passion for science:

  • Why did you chose STEM studies and why would you recommend them?

I have always found scientific studies extremely interesting and, above all, alive. They help to keep an eye on the future and on technology, demonstrating how you can help improve the world around us. That’s why I recommend these kind of studies. Additionally, science offers many job opportunities and helps develop a mindset that has a positive impact on how we live our daily lives.


  • The M-345 is a product of excellence. Can you tell us about the design and technological challenge?

I believe that the main challenge was to take up the legacy of a great plane, the MB339 of our beloved Frecce Tricolori. Everything was developed in a modern view, with great attention to consumption, emissions and advanced technology. I had the opportunity to work on avionics during flight testing campaigns, which was a wonderful professional experience. It is also the first plane produced through the Leonardo ‘One Company’ approach, designed and tested by engineers and technicians from different areas and corporate headquarters. It has been an honour and a pleasure to work on it.


  • Is there another innovation project on which you have worked or are working, representative for Leonardo and of which you feel proud?

Certainly the Skydweller program I’m working on, the American-Spanish start-up on which Leonardo has invested and which is designing the world’s first remotely piloted solar-powered aircraft. I’m responsible for the navigation system, throughout the development, integration and testing phases. This experience is a great opportunity for me to use the skills acquired during my PhD studies. It’s an exciting adventure that I am experiencing with an international team, together with the other Leonardo colleagues involved in the project.


Diversity as a business value, gender as an opportunity. Let’s tell your story.


  • What challenges, if any, have you faced on your career path as a female engineer?

I have always been treated in the same way as my male colleagues, both academically and professionally. In my experience, there was never a difference. Of course, it is true that there are still few women in this sector. We must work and invest in this direction.


  • How do you balance your professional and personal life?

When you do the job you like, there isn’t a big difference between professional and private life. In Leonardo, I’ve found deep attention for the workers and for their wellbeing, especially during the pandemic period.


  • In what areas (culture, welfare, economic) can Leonardo improve?

I think we need to invest further in sustainability issues, which Leonardo is doing. A first step may be to finance innovation research. For example, the Drone Contest: a project conceived and developed by Leonardo, in collaboration with six Italian universities, to promote in Italy the development of Artificial Intelligence applied to the field of UAS. That is the correct approach for me – investing in training, innovating and being an exemplar to others. 


In conclusion, what insight would you offer to young people in particular, based on your personal and professional history?

I believe in continuing education and being proactive – always looking with attentive eyes at what happens in the world of technology and trying to understand how to make your own contribution. To the girls and boys, in particular, I reiterate my invitation to be determined in pursuing their own goals, not to be discouraged, and to consider any eventual failure as an opportunity to rise up and return even stronger. So never give up!