The most simplistic acts in nature can be incredibly complex to replicate, whether it is the grasp of a human hand or the flight of an insect.

Jishnu Subramonian, our next pathbreaker, works on imitating real-world industrial problems to solve them through a multi-disciplinary approach based on Robotics and applies Biomimicry inspired techniques to analyze the flight of insects in researching feasibility of Micro Aerial Vehicles for his masters thesis.

Jishnu talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy  from The Interview Portal about his career journey from mechanical engineering to automobiles to controls/programming that finally led him to the fascinating field of Robotics where he could apply all his cumulative knowledge to solve real world problems in Engineering.

For students, Robotics is a multi-disciplinary field that integrates the best of humans and machines. Go for it if you would like to work on futuristic technologies.

Jishnu, your background?

“The only source of knowledge is experience” – Albert Einstein

Foremost, I would like to thank and appreciate the efforts made by “The Interview Portal” organization for the platform for sharing one’s experience.

I was born in a Nagercoil, a small town near the southernmost tip of India, and soon after, moved to Chennai. My father, a Veterinarian and mother, a Siddha Practitioner, both from a medical background naturally expected that I would choose to head in a similar direction. Soon after high school, I explored my natural flair towards engineering and technology. Apart from education, I actively indulged in candid nature photography with write-ups for them and played soccer.

What did you do for graduation/post-graduation?

On discussing with few senior peers from an engineering background, I found my interest more in the domains of Automotive and Robotics and thereby decided to proceed with Mechanical engineering. I did my BTech at Thiagarajar College of Engineering, and then worked as an Automotive Engineer for 2 years and am currently pursuing my Master’s degree in the field of Robotics at TU Delft, the Netherlands.

What made you choose such an offbeat, unconventional and unique career?

The major influencing factor that imbibed confidence in me was the competitive and profound peer environment where I pursued my education. Those tech driven shows, mostly in National geographic, subtly drove me to expand my boundaries. Programs like How do they do it?, Timewarp and Air crash investigation were among the many programs I binge-watched during my bachelor days. The meticulously performed engineering  feats and attention to detail made me crave to become a better engineer.

This may seem quite unconventional, but the first person from whom I derived motivation towards engineering was a Swedish car manufacturer, who I never met in real life. Christian von Koenigsegg, Swedish high-performance automobile engineer/entrepreneur was my role model ever since I first knew him during 2010. He is a man of passion and knowledge blended in together to continually improve performance, nothing is insignificant.

My mentor’s list would be quite a long one, first-of-all I am thankful to my parents followed by my professors, immediate managers and peers. However, I would like to mention few significant mentors viz., Dr. Murugananthanam (TCE Madurai, Professor & Head) for allowing me to actively participate in various tech events, Dr A Ramesh (IIT Madras, Chair Professor) who elevated my vision to seek better opportunities and stay persistent, Mr Nagendra Kumar and Mr Karunaharan (TVS Motors, R&D Manager) for up-skilling me to meet the standards of a professional environment, and currently Dr Hans Goosen, my Masters thesis advisor for his expert guidance in the field of robotics and well-wishers in general and finally Mr Jaimy Siebel (Managing Director, RoboValley) for his timely suggestions and inputs, providing me with opportunity to work in Industrial Robotics. My learning curve from them varied, draping across wide topics, but they were all instrumental and constructive for my career. 

I was actively engaged in mechatronic projects as a sophomore and participated in various national level competitions. One of the projects I did on the development of Remote controlled boats for a highly constrained event at IISc, Bangalore captured my interest in electronics and controls. The RC Boat consisted of twin propellers including a transmitter and receiver which were completely developed in-house. We finally secured third place which boosted my confidence further. Later I was elected as vice-captain for developing an Electric hybrid Go-Kart with ~20 members and we attained 11th position among the 100+ teams. Also, as a hobby project I learned to work on an Arduino with various sensors and actuators. At this point, I realized my interest lay in automation and controls and hence actively started looking for opportunities.

How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Or how did you make a transition to a new career? Tell us about your career path

A major turning point in my career was after I joined my under graduation. As a fresher, I had the opportunity to apply for the Collaborative Education Program, exclusively developed at my college, for mechanical and electrical engineers. This program was introduced by TVS Motors, a leading automotive industry in India. 

The main objective of the Industry-Institute collaborative program was to bridge the gap for a student in becoming an engineer. After rigorous selection procedures for a couple of days including technical, psychometric, group discussions and personal interview, I was fortunate to get selected for the program. Among the ~240 participants, the shortlisted 18 of us were provided with the offer. This program enabled us to complete for merit scholarship including tuition and living expenses, a technical internship at the end of the semester and opportunity to join the company as an engineer. The technical and personal learning I gained were humongous and dense.

Hailing from a Mechanical background, I understood that to become a mechatronics engineer, other vital control and programming skills were required. I started opting for related electives and participated in inter-departmental projects. Also, the collaborative education program helped me with special classes to build my electrical skills. 

Internship at company TVS Motors (2012-16) – The initial internships offered in the collaborative education program were mainly focused on identifying my area of interest and soft skill development. During the third semester, the internship was focused more on technical skills like fundamentals of Electronics in automobiles. Topics like motors and ECU’s were most interesting and helped me understand the interaction between mechanical and electronic systems. Later, a crash course was arranged in mechatronics for developing a ball shooter and line following bot. The successful completion of both the projects pruned me better in becoming a mechatronics engineer. My major technical learnings were understanding the electro-mechanical overlap of systems and working efficiently with them. 

Internship at IIT Madras (3 months) – As the next step in building my career, I applied for a research-oriented internship at Indian Institute of Technology, Madras and got selected during my final year. My objective was to analyze the start sequence of a state-of-the-art CRDi mHawk engine, a diesel engine used in Automobiles. This involved understanding the hardware aspects of Data acquisition and software development for analyzing the data. Since the project was an ongoing PhD work at the lab, usable results were achieved within the time limits. The level of research I experienced here was enormous and brought out my innate drive for research and development. This was the first time I was completely working on software development on my own. The processing software I developed using MATLAB was later used by the PhD researchers until their graduation. Until this point, I was lacking in programming skills and this experience helped in partially fulfilling my robotics dream.

Robotics Intern, RoboHouse The Netherlands (2019-20)

A really special moment in my career happened several years after acquiring knowledge of robotics when I was able to grab my first internship opportunity to work as a Robotics Engineer at RoboHouse, The Netherlands.  They were convinced with my abilities and i started my first project i.e. To develop a robotic system for identifying and discarding of fallen bottles in a conveyor. The daunting work required 2 problems to be solved, a sensing system for the identification that was highly reliable, a control system for controlling the kinematics of the ABB robot. Computer vision, Robotic motion planning and control courses I studied during my MSc first year helped me understand the system better. In the time limit of 3 months, I solved the sensing problem along with the implementation of various safety systems using LiDAR. 

Further, with convincing results from my internship I was offered an extension with the possibility to work as a part-time student assistant for the next 7 months. Apart from the thesis, working once a week on industrial real-time problems helped me plunge into the real world robotics issues.

How did you get your first break?

‘2nd Semester under graduation  – Selected as R&D Engineer’

My first job offer that I received within 6 months after joining engineering surfed a wave of excitement and responsibility in me that changed me as a person.

  • Senior Design Engineer (2016-18)  

Soon after my Btech, I joined TVS Motors in the Research and Development as Senior executive engineer and was assigned to work on the on-going TVS BMW collaboration project. My initial tasks were validation of existing control logic of Bosch Engine Management systems for performance. I was responsible for ECU calibration mainly focusing on controls as I had prior experience working on a similar domain at my IIT Madras internship. The base map calibration required plotting meticulous control points within accurate tolerance to get efficient performance. Later I was involved in developing a controls strategy collaborating with Bosch to solve peculiar performance problems. During the process, I realized that most of the manual procedures involved could be automated and the control points were actuatable. Soon when the initial product was launched in the market, during my second year I had got a few admits in mechatronics courses and chose TU Delft considering various aspects. 

What were the challenges? How did you address them?

Challenge 1: 

Programming skills

I was not new to programming at any point, but I surely had a long way to go to bridge the gap in becoming a robotics engineer. Before joining post-graduation, I had very little time to focus on this aspect as my work-experience mostly kept me occupied with controls and mechanics.

Solution : Practice makes a man perfect, best analogy for becoming a programmer. To adhere with this thumb rule I chose major electives related to programming and followed a few online walkthrough classes (coursera, bootcamp). However, the real learning was during my thesis and student assistanship.

Challenge 2: 

Aligning the skills

Switching fields may seem all chaos until you uncover the true reason and sound fair to yourself. Using this to your advantage needs clarity. Any relevant experience is a boon for the employer, identify it for the betterment of the situation. 

Where do you work now? 

I currently work as a Robotics student assistant at Robo House.

We mainly focus on imitating a real-world industrial problem at our lab and try to solve them via multiple approaches. The solution usually involves the combined working of 2-3 engineers with different areas of expertise. Finally, once the solution is proven under various simulated conditions, the case is closed. 

My role initially required controls expertise, but later I started working on computer vision programming which I learned mostly during work and from my colleagues.

I work on my research thesis which is related to unmanned systems. Work usually begins with data acquisition for my experimental setup and development of control logic by the latter half of the day. 

Lately, due to corona, a lot of simulation related work has begun. At RoboHouse (usually Fridays) I start with planning my work for the day and test my earlier algorithm on the robots (ABB IRB1200/ABB FlexPicker) followed by debugging and analyzing.

What is it you love about this job? 

The possibility to work on multi-disciplinary projects, which I missed earlier as an Automotive engineer .

How does your work benefit  society? 

First, I would like to explain my research objective in the field of  unmanned systems followed with the benefits. 

Insects in general are amazing micro-machines that have evolved with the most optimized features, pushing engineering to extreme limits in terms of size, weight and power for propulsion, all the while being autonomous. These flying creatures are intelligent mini-bots that are capable of handling extreme situations with brilliant manoeuvre for survival. A tremendous amount of work has gone in the past to achieve autonomous flight and significant improvements have been made, yet extremely few successful projects have been realized in the past. Individual honing of subsystems is not necessarily a guarantee of a positive impact on the system as a more holistic approach is required in achieving the goal. 

There is an unmet need for safe light-weight drones in indoor environments, which can be addressed through bio-inspired flying mechanisms which cater to various indoor tasks, which can later be combined with swarm robotics. 

Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!

After tirelessly working for almost 2 years as R&D engineer, where I was responsible for control and calibration of various Engine related maps in the ECU for optimum performance, the product was successfully launched in the Indian Premium Motorcycle segment on December 6, 2017. It was my most memorable moment being my first job.

Details of the product: TVS Apache RR 310 sports bike, made by TVS in collaboration with BMW Motorrad.

Your advice to students based on your experience?

“Strike the balance”

For a small proportion of people, their innate traits and area of interest lie in the same page. It is smart and wise to chart a career in this path if the individual is aware of one’s possibilities and limitations.

And the rest belong in the remaining major category, where your interest and natural traits may (slightly) vary. Once a good trade-off between these both are made, you become unique and successful in what you do. And walking the distance demands persistence and perseverance which ultimately makes you a sound individual. 

Above all, if what you do for 5 days a week does not interest/propel you further, that’s an indication for you to initiate change of plans.  

Future Plans?

Currently, my future plans would be to either proceed with further research through Ph.D. in the field of vision-guided robotics that support unmanned systems. An alternative plan would be to gain relevant work experience, become more aware of the challenges and become a better engineer. Either ways, on a long term basis I would prefer to start something on my own, in the field of automation to support and solve unmet needs and existing mundane problems.