Questions by Sulo Kallas – Senior Electronics Engineer, Starship Technologies.
At the Starship Head office in Mustamäe, Tallinn, the world’s most advanced robot is being developed as a solution to a final mile-long problem – a six-wheel-drive vehicle, similar to a small kamowalker. An expert, in both home electronics and software, is invited to join the robotics platform team, which combines these two areas of expertise into one component.
We do not expect complete knowledge of a number of technologies. What is important is that the new member be interested in personal study, as well as finding a solution to any problem. Because there are so many problems that need answers that no one in the world has ever created.
What does Starship offer to the new team member? Senior Electronics Engineer Sulo Kallas, who joined the Starship in his early years, has the answers.
Why Starship? There is a lot of competition for workers in the technical field. How do you attract talent to stay with you?
We are doing things that were said to be impossible a few years ago. We are the world’s leading manufacturer of advanced robots; providing an alternative way of performing rituals. We are not one of the leaders, but the leader, no one has ever come.
We have a vision and a clear vision, which our employees understand and hear – our work has a clear impact. We obey our people; they have a lot of freedom and there is no chain of command from top to bottom. Anyone can express their thoughts and give their answer.
What motivated you in this career and what part of your career did you enjoy the most?
I like that the choices in Starship are reasonable. It would be difficult for me to work in an organization where directors do the wrong thing. We have one goal: to overcome the challenges posed by the mission of sending the final miles and reaching the world with our robots. The whole team is working on that.
The company’s founder, Ahti Heinla, is an engineer and is redesigning his software. He is a skilled craftsman and a knowledgeable programmer. Ahti has managed to keep the company focused on what is most important – product development and operations.
I also like that everyone has a chance to contribute to the development of the company. The people I meet on a daily basis are the best. There are some very bright brains working here, you could say that every second person here is smart. And, of course, I care about what we want to achieve.
What is your team at Starship doing and what challenges have you had so far?
I work on a platform, which connects two areas. On the one hand, mechanical engineers work with a mechanical component and, on the other hand, software engineers write creative, navigation, machine vision, and other software. We deal with electronics, hardware, and software.
We don’t write smart rules for making robots to take action. Instead, we offer a professional platform for it. We make our own computer modules and do not use standard electronic methods.
There are, of course, a lot of programs involved with computer modules. Our platform team is working to protect the operating system, we create drivers and make other necessary support for the software that runs the robot, to integrate physical components and sensors. We also make the most advanced development and non-integrated development.
Does this mean that you often have to hold the molten metal?
Of course, molten metal is a common tool, but we do not sell the new types by ourselves. Even the first model we call to the factory, electronics are no longer “home-made” today. But when the model comes, it doesn’t work incorrectly from the beginning. In the beginning, we make additions and repair more, and the soldering iron is really important.
Some of us are proficient in hardware and software. For example, some automotive software developers need to know more about hardware than most software developers. Software developers are often unaware of hardware. Most of the time, our team works in an area where programs and tools meet.
Who are you looking to add to your team and what should they know?
We are not looking for someone with special skills, but we are looking for a skilled engineer, who is interested in working in a mix of hardware and software applications. If they are electrically powerful, we love them. If they are strong in programming, we love them too. If he can do all this, even better.
Inevitably, we deal with new things every day, and we have no ready-made answers. As a result, we are developing new solutions that have never been this way before. This requires people who do not do what they are told to do. We need design professionals who understand the requirements, and are able to find a solution that can meet those needs. Sometimes you need a simple electrical solution and complex software, and sometimes it is different.
We are looking for a relaxed person who always finds the right approach. We are really looking for free engineers. Someone who finds a solution to a problem difficult, rather than finding it difficult. Of course, we have many problems that need to be resolved. To give examples, the new member of the group may be a network programmer, or an electrical engineer, who is able to sell analog electronics.
How does the new employee develop and learn new skills?
Only a person who can learn on his own, can do well in this session, even if there are opportunities to learn. In our company, education does not mean anything superficial, like participating in various courses. Skills are also developed through technology. We have a mentoring program every year. We train newcomers, and staff members can choose their own mentors.
What should be the attitude of a person who joins your group and what should you prepare for?
Ideally, this is possible, but not a single person in the platform today can do their job alone, because we face real challenges. You need to communicate with others regularly. We need to ensure that the needs of platform users are met.
You need to contact software developers and engineers. A good example is robot locks. In the areas of robots, electronics and software you need to understand whether the door locks are closed, open or jammed.
So far, Starship robots have delivered more than 2 million shipments. There have been failures at the time, and we need to explore and address them in our interactions with other groups; including, to a large extent, the maintenance team. As we provide the final task of sending miles, we must build a robot that is durable for everyday use and easy to maintain. We are looking for someone who is thoughtful and independent, able to find the right answers.
What are the most difficult answers your team has come up with?
The main task was to move the connecting plate that connects the cameras and computers, to the modern PCI Express. This was one of the biggest projects we have ever had. It is an additional PCI Express card that allows you to connect more than a dozen cameras and other high-speed devices to a computer in a robot and make them accessible to operating systems and applications. However, I cannot publish the details of all of this.
Cameras, radars, automotive controllers – all of these electronics are made by us, and these functions have become very complex. To explain more, we created a card based on FPGA. The PCI Express FPGA card enables data transfer between sensors, cameras, and on-board computers, especially faster.
What do group members do in their free time, do their interests come from other areas?
The platform group tends to be interested in home-related topics. All of these are people with an interest in engineering, who do more or less during their leisure time, such as electronics, mechanics or computer hobbies.
But that is the case in this area. If you want to combine your preferences and activities, this is the best place to be.