Interview : Adyasha Dash (Mech – 2015)

Please state and explain your current profile. Also, state your past profiles and work/research internships.

I have been in the field of robotics for the last few years, and specifically at Wingtra – a spinoff from ETH Zürich – for the last two and a half years. We build fully-autonomous VTOL drones for surveying and mapping.

The main benefit and also the biggest challenge in the company was the building the drones which combine two technology- one, the multicopters which takeoff and land vertically but can’t cover large areas. And then there are the fixed-wing planes, which cover large areas but need space for take-off and landing. What we develop is a hybrid of both: the Wingtra drone takes off and lands vertically but then once it’s in the air, it tilts 90 degrees and flies like a fixed-wing plane to cover large areas. Our services are used for different applications. For instance, for mapping Africa’s largest Uranium mine, for researchers in Greenland who want to study glaciers, researchers in Australia who take count of nearly extinct animals in the ocean etc.

I started with working on flight control and landing algorithms. Right now my focus is more on developing the interface that people interact with, which is basically the flight planning app. This involves the development of user interface experience, and adaptive flight planning algorithms.

I did my Bachelor of Technology in Mechanical engineering, Batch of 2015. During my bachelor’s my first internship was at IISc Bangalore, where I did a project in Experimental Fluid Mechanics.  Then I did a project at the University of Calgary, Canada on the Control and Dynamics of Bicopter for indoor search and rescue operations. Apart from that, I did a lot of mini projects as a part of the 3D Aeromodelling Club, which I founded with a couple of friends. Then I also did a remote project with a professor from TU Dresden, Germany on Space Propulsion.

Throughout NITT my focus was a lot more on things that fly in general. Some I tried to approach from different perspectives, some from experimental fluid mechanics, and some from control and dynamics perspective. So I did a lot of hobby aeromodelling and flying, then some work on space propulsion. I was trying a lot of things to see what I like.

So I liked my project in Canada a lot: it started off with dynamics which is based on mechanical engineering but then it brought in controls that I had no background in then. It was really nice working at the intersection; I did some programming as well. This was my motivation and when I was looking for my Master’s or PhD program, this is what I was searching for- something that is at the intersection of two fields. Robotics was perfect for that.

I was also looking forward to coming to Europe as a lot of my peers were in the US, and I knew what to expect there. Since I didn’t know much about Europe I thought it would be a good experience to come and see how things are. Moreover, these two professors at ETH Zürich, Professor Siegwart and Professor D’Andrea, and I really liked the work they did. Also, I had a look at all the start-ups here, and I found the opportunities here very exciting. This motivated me to pursue my Master’s in Robotics at ETH Zurich.

I started my Master’s here in 2015 and graduated earlier in 2018. The Master’s here is very flexible; you can take up to three years as per requirement and experiment a lot. You have to do an internship, a semester project and thesis work. I used this opportunity to join a start-up in my second semester here. I worked part-time here first, managing my studies. Then I worked full time for almost a year and then went back to working part-time while doing my thesis. Now I am back full time after finishing my studies.

Technically speaking, there are two projects I worked on in Zurich. My semester project was with the AtlantikSolar, the solar-powered aeroplane that broke the world record for highest endurance flight of 81 hours. Here my focus was to work on predictive control (nonlinear model predictive control field), involving predicting the optimum trajectory for the flight while taking into account external disturbances like the wind.

My Master’s thesis which I recently finished focused on a specific sensor that is used on practically every outdoor UAV (a magnetic compass). I worked on the different ways the magnetic compass can fail and the ways to solve the problem.

 

What are the skills you think students need to learn before/while pursuing a master’s degree in robotics?

Programming: while I did some basic programming with C++ while I was at NITT, for robotics application, I needed to develop these skills much further and also had to learn a few other languages. The constraints with which I work now are also different since I work with real-time, embedded applications. Typically, these involve tight constraints on computational complexities and memory usage. On the other hand, in the field of machine learning, you can make use of a lot of computational resources and the challenges in programming there, relate to cleaning and manipulating databases.

Fundamentals of mathematics are also very important. At NITT, in mechanical engineering, most things were manufacturing and application focused. So getting back to the fundamentals of mathematics was one of the things I had to do after coming to ETH and starting in the field of robotics.

Domain transfer- like transferring your knowledge in dynamics to control and learning to connect the dots. It’s always easier starting something from familiar grounds rather than starting from the scratch.

Learning quickly is another meta-skill that’s always helpful to develop, as the field is very fast paced and its necessary to learn things quickly and keep up in this field.

What should students know before taking up research?

First of all, it is important to know what kind of setup works for you. For example, when I worked on my projects at NITT, there was a mixture. Some projects were completely independent: my supervisor gave me a general field in which I had to select a particular problem to work on. At other times, for example, my semester project in ETH was very well organized. I had regular touchpoints, and my supervisor helped me with minor details like even if my code was failing I could approach for guidance and he would look into it and help me out.

You can find out what kind of mixture you like, and this will help you understand which professors you want to work with and which labs you want to work in.

Secondly, you need to understand what content you like. Whether you prefer application based or method based content. I am very application oriented; while I do have friends who love working on the methods- like improvising the tools etc.

 

How should students pursue their career in research?

It depends on timing and what you like. I think there are three ways to approach a career in research. One will be academic – you have the option to do a lot of theoretical and fundamental research, without necessarily being driven towards short-term benefits. You could probably figure out that something doesn’t work, that’s also a good result. Or you could do something long term.

You could also pursue research in corporations. For instance, many of my peers from ETH Zurich go to companies like IBM and ABB. These companies work in sectors like data science, programming, automation, robotics etc. The kind of data and infrastructure these companies have might be difficult to come across in academia. If this setup, like R&D in a big company, excites you, then that’s also good.

The third option is to work with start-ups. At start-ups there’s almost no hierarchy, there are only small teams and you have to do very high prioritisation of which problem to solve at a fast pace. You have to prioritise innovation and market. You need to know when to stop looking deep and put out a product.

Since I liked the labs I worked in at ETH, if I decide to do further research or a PhD, I would like to work there since I like the teams a lot. But for now, I’m happy working at Wingtra.

 

Why are research internships important? How do students hone their skills through these internships?

They help you understand what setup you like – whether you want to be independent or want to work with consistent guidance, and what kind of content you enjoy.

With regards to skills, this is the first point where you learn how to approach solving problems. I, for example, like having a lot of datasets, understanding fundamental principles and see how they connect. Everyone has a different approach and your research internship will help you understand your preferred one.

Then you’ll also learn how to break out of the question-answer format of learning which you are very used to when you’re just starting at university, since in research there is no one right answer while there are many wrong answers. You’ll learn to be persistent in getting results after long hours.

Specifically, this will be your first introduction to writing. You’ll learn to write a good literature review and reports after a number of repetitions. You’ll also learn some basics like using Google Scholar and how to setup Latex.

What courses helped you most in your area of research? Did any form of self-learning, like online courses, help you further your knowledge in that field?

Personally for me, I learn a lot through a hands-on approach. Understanding the fundamentals are very important as well. But what I like about courses is that these let you know where to start from and help you understand where you can find the right resources are for future projects. They’re a good starting point, and might be useful in the future. So I usually like taking up courses that are interesting and fun.

With regards to self-learning, I guess what I’ve used a lot is Udacity for learning the basics of different topics. My introduction to it was at Wingtra for learning version control three years ago. Since then, I have used Udacity to learn what I needed without getting caught into too many unnecessary details.

Then there is Kaggle where you can do data analysis work. For online courses, I prefer those where there is a lot of practical study as well. Apart from that, I love learning the fundamentals from books and then working with something online and then try to converge the two approaches.

 

What kind of employment opportunities can one look forward to in Robotics?

The field of robotics is quite large, so I can divide it into two parts. One is the hardware-heavy part where you work on applications like walking robots, flying devices, self-driving cars, underwater robotics. Here, you mostly work on the control and dynamics, path planning, sensor fusion and state estimation that is based on real-time interaction and responses.

On the other hand, you also have Machine Learning/Deep Learning. This involves working with a large number of datasets with complex models consisting of millions of parameters. For instance, Google Translate, Deep Mind, health research at IBM. Then there are people who are trying to work at the intersection, using neural networks with real time interactions hardware.

So as a fast-growing field, robotics has plenty of exciting challenges to offer and what you want to do largely depends on which route you want to take as we talked in question 4 before.

 

What do you think are the inadequacies in research in research in India, and specifically in NIT Trichy?

I don’t know so much in terms of research at NITT. But from what I’ve observed – there is a lack of infrastructure. Even compared to my lab at IISc which in itself was very well equipped compared to many other Indian universities, when I worked at the University of Calgary, Canada, the infrastructure was much more developed and this helped carry your work with less hassle and more speed. Another observation I’ve come across is that the layers of bureaucracy affect progress. Besides, there is a lack of awareness about the other parts of the world and how people are. We can learn a lot about the integrity of experiments and the work ethics from our Western counterparts, for example.

 

You founded two clubs at NIT Trichy. How do you think that experience helped you later in your life and what were the key takeaways?

Firstly, project planning- working with small teams and smart people, which is very similar to my teams at Wingtra. At NITT, I was in the lead for different kinds of projects. So I know what to expect while leading a team. For instance, with communication about deadlines, it helped me when my juniors kept me informed about the progress, delays and problems they encountered. So this helps me now as well when working in a team with someone else in the lead as I put myself in their shoes. With respect to this example, now I try to be proactive in my communication and don’t wait to be asked about my progress.

Another important takeaway was the importance of cultivating work culture and ethics within a team. With the Fishbowl Network, I learned the importance of setting up the culture in a team first hand, which we later incorporated in 3D Aeromodelling club. We also understood how difficult it was to change the setup later and how much of the learning was transferrable. Some of the problems I dealt with before help me handle similar situations there. And now that I’m at Wingtra, which has people of many different nationalities, I am still surprised by how many elements of team culture are still similar and help me understand potential problems.

In terms of specific skills, I’ve worked on some concepts like digital marketing, SEO optimisation, analytics, content writing during my time at Fishbowl Network – all which helped me with cultivating and contributing to developing new teams at Wingtra, the start-up which has grown from fifteen people to nearly fifty people in two years. So while I primarily work here as robotics software developer, the prior experience in digital marketing helps me support the Marketing team now in its early stage. These small experiences and knowledge reduces your dependency on others and lets you take more initiative.

The three years at NITT were amazing because of the clubs; I made some good friends with seniors and juniors as well.

 

How much does the technical knowledge one acquires in college help during jobs? Also, what soft skills are to be acquired in work culture?

From studies, not necessarily the syllabus, you can understand the ‘why’ part of many concepts and their basics. While studying, you can be more curious and study more in depth. The ‘how’ part I learned better at my job. I learned about the limitations to theoretical learning with experience.

With regards to soft skills, feedback is very important. At college, the clubs that I founded or participated in had an open feedback culture and at my current workplace also, there is a direct feedback mechanism which I truly appreciate. It helps with self-reflection and if you don’t have the habit (of giving and receiving feedback) yet, develop it. When you receive feedback, you learn some things about yourself that you didn’t know earlier. It helps you improve upon yourself and interact better with others. It also helps you understand different perspectives, and learning how to give good feedback is also quite important.

You need to understand the work culture of your company before you try to change anything, that’s also an important soft skill.

 

What must one do after getting admitted into college? How do you feel time must be utilized post-admission?

I would suggest relaxing and spending time with friends and family. Apart from that, you can try thinking about funding. In my case, I was mailing professors requesting a Research Assistantship after I got my admit. You could also think about how you wish to spend your time further, keep an open mind and try to figure out what courses and programs you would like to pursue.

 

How can one arrange funds for higher studies, especially those who are going abroad? Are there any notable scholarships or educational loans that one can avail?

Most universities provide teaching or research assistantships which can waive off a good portion of the fees. There are also some universities like Stanford, ETH etc which give fellowships. These fellowships are often a part of the application. So you’ll know about them at the time of applying by checking the website. When I applied, there was also a TOEFL scholarship which was given to 10 students from India.

Most of the people who started with me either got an internship or an RA or TA in their second semester latest. So, in the worst case scenario, you just have to cover the expenses for the first semester somehow.

 

What are the challenges faced during learning new skills and adapting to new environments?

This is something I like doing a lot. Regarding the second part of the question, since my father worked with the Indian Air Force, I moved around a lot as a kid, and for me, it’s very easy to be in and adapt to a new place.

When learning new skills, it’s important to find the right resources. That’s one of the first steps and saves a lot of time. Then what’s important is that you learning when to ask for help. While it’s good to learn something by yourself, it’s necessary to find the balance between trying out new things and asking for help. The third one is finding the balance between depth of knowledge you can achieve and the time that you have.  

You need to know when to draw the line between researching or learning and implementing when working on a project, for example.

Regarding adapting to new environments, it always helps to keep an open mind and setting the right expectations for your environment. That way it doesn’t affect learning since you first accept things the way they are, without getting stuck on the ‘why’ too much, e.g. while learning new languages. The other important thing is to take initiative, the first step. I learned this as a child. It helped me as it’s always easier making friends if you are the one who extends the hand first. People are willing to take the rest of the 99 steps if you take the first one step.

On the practical side, it helps you understand your niche, what kind of friends you make. I make friends when we share the same passion and have mutual interests. So whenever I’m in a new city, I look up the website called meetup.com where you can find meetups in your area and where you can discuss different things or participate in different activities. That’s the way I made a lot of friends in Canada and Zürich. Also, it’s easier meeting people while at university once you have a peer group, you can keep in touch.

 

How can one be sure that a certain career path is right for them? What is a good way to make that decision?

I think it is fine if you’re not completely certain. You can experiment and try to figure out what you like and what you don’t and what you are willing to do.
I am very much driven by being able to learn and contribute something positive to the society. So as long as these two things are fulfilled, I am super happy. For me, the end application matters quite a bit.
I like to face new challenges every day, but it’s not necessary that every day has to be a creative challenge. As long as at least 3 days are like that and at the end of a week we are still creating really something useful for other people to use, I am still happy. I’m not so bent on staying in a particular field forever. In case tomorrow I have to work with a completely different technology, I will be more than happy to take it up, learn something in that direction and work with it. That’s something really important for me. So that’s my rule of thumb to know if I’m in a good path or not, if I’m learning, growing and creating something useful or not.


I like staying out of my comfort zone and pushing my boundaries. Working for long in my comfort zone makes me feel uneasy. I love jumping into the water and figuring out how to swim.
Some of my friends worry about the kind of resources that they have now so that they can use it later, which I also think could be a valid approach. E.g., building your network or, having good savings are some resources really useful for starting an organization. Doing a job now which gives you a network, experience, and savings would be really useful and would turn out to be the kind of career path which might suit you. In the end, it depends a lot on what your long-term goals are. At times, some things feel nice to do now but if they don’t feed your long-term goals then probably you are not on the right path.
For myself, I see learning, growing and creating something useful for the society more as my career path than a particular field like robotics.

 

Is there any advice that you would like to give to the students of NITT?

In my four years of stay at NITT, the student clubs added a lot of value to me in terms of the skills that I have now.

For example, technical skills or soft skills like teamwork. I still have in my mind very explicitly the things which I learnt by working in teams and I use them in my day to day life. Understanding how to work in a team is very important. And on a more general level, being a part of student clubs also helped me build some of my closest friendships at NITT and is one of the main reasons I enjoyed my time there so much.

So my small advice would be to try taking responsibility for something, which could just be a small part of the university and giving back to the university. You’ll actually feel a part of it. On the short term it’ll make you feel nice and in the long term you learn something on the way and the motivation of being part of something bigger will help you get to the right place.

I would advise everyone to be part of clubs or teams and try to learn as much as you can. You never know what skills you learn now will come in use later on. Make the best of the time and resources you have around you.

 

 

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