Interview with Sulo Kallas — Senior Electronics Engineer at Starship Technologies.
At Starship headquarters in Mustamae, Tallinn, world-leading delivery robots are being developed as solutions to the challenges of last-mile delivery. This is his six-wheeled robotic vehicle that resembles a miniature moonwalker. A specialist well versed in both electronics and software, these robotics platforms combine two areas of expertise in his single role and are invited to join his team.
We do not expect perfect knowledge of some technologies. Importantly, this new team member is willing to learn on their own and find solutions to any challenge. Because there are many challenges that require solutions that no one in the world has ever created.
What does Starship offer this new team member? Slo Karas, a senior electronics engineer who joined Starship early on, has an answer.
Why Starship? There is fierce competition for employees in the technology sector. How do you attract talent?
We are doing things that were said to be impossible just a few years ago. We are the world leader in last-mile delivery robotization. We offer an alternative to traditional services. We are not just one of those leaders.
We have a clear goal and vision, which our employees understand and feel. Our work has impact and tangible results. We listen to people. They have a lot of freedom and no chain of command from top to bottom. Everyone can express their opinion and propose solutions.
What keeps you most motivated in this job and what part of your job do you enjoy the most?
I love how rational Starship’s decisions are. It would be difficult for me to work in an organization where management does unreasonable things. we have a common goal. It is to solve the challenges posed by last-mile delivery services and deliver to every corner of the world with our robots. The whole team works for it.
The company’s founder, Ahti Heinla, is an engineer and still writes software himself. He is a very talented and creative software his engineer with extensive programming experience. Ahti has managed to keep the company focused on what is most important – the development of products and services.
I also like that everyone has the opportunity to influence the development of the company. The people I communicate with every day are really nice. The brightest minds are at work here, and you could even say that one of the two of them here is a genius of sorts. And of course I care about what we want to achieve.
What is the Starship team doing and what has been the most interesting challenge so far?
I work on the platform team that connects the two realms. On the one hand, mechanical engineers work with machine parts, and on the other hand, software engineers create programs for artificial intelligence, navigation, machine vision, and more. We deal in electronics, hardware and software.
We don’t write artificial intelligence code that makes robots do things. Rather, we provide the technology platform for that. We design our own electronic modules and do not use standard electronic solutions.
Undoubtedly, there is a fair amount of programming associated with electronic modules. Our platform team works to ensure a working operating system, develops the drivers and creates other necessary support for the software that controls the robot, allowing it to connect to physical components and sensors. We also do very deep embedded and non-embedded development.
Does this mean you often have to grab a soldering iron?
Sure, a soldering iron is a common tool, but you never solder a new model yourself. Modern electronics are no longer “homemade,” even the first prototypes ordered from the factory. But when you have a prototype, it rarely works the first time. A lot of corrections will be made at first, but a soldering iron is absolutely necessary.
Some are familiar with both hardware and software. For example, some driver software authors need to know more about hardware than the average programmer. Traditional software developers are typically not hardware savvy. In general, our team works in areas where software and hardware come together.
Who are you looking to add to your team and what do they need to know?
We are not looking for specific people with specific skills, but we are looking for talented engineers with an interest in operating in the convergence of hardware and software. If they’re good with electronics, we’re interested in them. If they’re good with software, we’re interested in them too. If you can do both, even better.
Inevitably, we deal with something completely new on a daily basis and no suitable off-the-shelf solution is at hand. That’s why we’re creating new, never-before-seen solutions in this form. This requires someone who simply does not do what they are told. You need a creative specialist who understands what you need and can come up with a solution that meets that need. Sometimes you need a solution using simple electronics and complex software, and sometimes vice versa.
We are looking for open-minded people who always find the right approach. Basically we are looking for an open-minded engineer. Someone who sees finding a solution to a problem as a challenge instead of seeing the problem as an obstacle. In fact, we have various problems that require proper solutions. This new team member could be a programmer with networking experience, or an electronic technician who can solder analog electronics, to name a few.
How do new hires improve themselves and acquire new skills?
Training opportunities are available, but only those who are self-taught can succeed in this area. In our company, training is not as classical as attending various courses. Mentoring also sharpens your skills. We run a mentoring program every year. We train new hires and employees can choose their own mentors.
What personality traits do people who join your team have and what should they prepare for?
In theory, this is possible, but today’s platform teams are faced with really tough challenges, and no one person can do the job completely alone. We must constantly communicate with others. You need to ensure that the needs of your platform users are met.
You will have to interact with programmers and mechanic engineers. A good example is the robot lock. Robotic locks require electronics and software to understand whether the door locking mechanism is closed, open or jammed.
To date, Starship robots have made over 2 million deliveries. Meanwhile, there have been failures. You should investigate and resolve them in your interactions with other teams. Most include maintenance teams. To provide last-mile delivery services, we need to create robots that are durable enough for daily use and easy to maintain. We are looking for someone who is a communicator, an independent thinker and able to find good solutions.
What’s the most complicated solution your team came up with?
The main task was to move the connection plate that connects the camera to the computer to modern PCI Express. This was the largest single project to date. This is a PCI Express expansion card that connects over 10 cameras and other high speed devices to the computer inside the robot for use by the operating system and application software. However, I can’t publish all the very detailed details of this.
We manufacture the electronics for all these components: cameras, radars, motor controllers, etc. These tasks are also very complex. Specifically, I created a card based on FPGA. PCI Express FPGA cards help move data especially fast between sensors, cameras, and onboard computers.
What do team members do in their free time? Do they have hobbies in different areas?
Platform teams tend to be interested in similar topics at home. These are all people with some sort of engineering passion, and in their spare time they do more or less the same thing, be it cool electronics, mechanical or computer hobbies.
But in this area it is. If you want to combine hobby and work, this is the place for you.