The construction industry has always been a legacy industry that is dangerous and risk-prone. But all that is changing, thanks to the innovations in Industrial Robotics.
Tanaya Bhave, our next pathbreaker, Construction Roboticist, works on industrial robots (proprietary software and hardware) to help accomplish physically difficult, repetitive and dangerous tasks previously accomplished with manual labor.
Tanaya talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about accidentally coming across robotics in a research lab, marveling at the pure science fiction aspects and deciding to specialize with a masters degree in Robotics.
For students, be open minded and curious so that you can always change your mind and switch to an area that excites you to go to work everyday !
Tanaya, tell us about your background?
Hi ! I am Tanaya Bhave. I am a Robotics and Mechatronics Engineer working for a construction robotics company since 2018 in New York. I grew up in Indore and Raipur in central India. My mother is a school teacher and my father a mechanical engineer. I come from a long line of engineers, right from my grandfather. As a kid, I always enjoyed designing and building. I would often sit at my grandfather’s drafting table and imitate him making the structural drawings for buildings or accompany my father to every machine tool trade show. I was always in awe of the thousands of tiny parts put together to create one perfectly synchronised motion in those machines.
As a teacher’s daughter I grew up in a strict and loving home. Education was of utmost importance and so was the choice of being able to choose our career paths in my household. My parents always inspired self discipline and commitment in me .
What did you do for graduation/post graduation?
I pursued my undergraduate study in Mechanical engineering from Visweswaraya Technological University, India and then a Master’s degree in Mechatronics, Robotics and Automation Engineering from New York University.
What made you choose such an offbeat, unconventional and unique career?
My parents were always the key influencers in my life. I always wanted to be a teacher like my mother and at the same time an engineer like my father. My father would always make me his assistant while fixing the car, the stereo or the lights in our house. I would stand next to him holding a flashlight and feeling very important to this process of fixing things. He would sometimes successfully and sometimes unsuccessfully work on these everyday machines and I could only see myself growing up and building these machines. He unknowingly opened a world full of curiosity for me. They would see my curiosity and always buy me toys to help me learn these small concepts through RC cars and my little DC induction motor set which lit the smallest but the brightest LED for me. At the age of 13 I knew and I went and announced to my parents that I am going to be a Mechanical Engineer. They were always supportive of my choices.
I had not quite figured out my path to being a roboticist back then. I only knew that mechanics and machines was what I wanted to work with. After undergrad I applied to the Indian air force technical college to become a flight engineer while also taking my GRE and applying for a master’s degree in the US. When I started my master’s degree at NYU, I had joined the Heat and Mass Transfer program under Mechanical Engineering. I made friends with some PhD students who worked in the robotics lab while scouting for on campus jobs. All the work that these people were doing was pure science fiction to me and I knew I wanted to be a part of it. NYU happened to introduce a new engineering program for robotics and I jumped at the opportunity. I immediately filed the paperwork and changed my program of study after a semester.
Tell us about your career path
It is essentially difficult to have a perfect plan in place. The way I have always looked at things is to figure out the smaller pieces to add to the big picture. I pay attention to solving current scenarios which will add value in the long run. The same was my thought in moving to the Mechatronics and Robotics programme from core Mechanical engineering. I weighed both the options and decided that this diverse field of study will help me attain deeper understanding with more career options.
When I started the programme I realized there was a lot of ground for me to cover before getting to where my peers were. I had no background in software or electronics. To be able to bridge that gap, I spent time assisting PhD students on their research projects in the robotics lab. My professor did not have any requirements for a research assistant in the lab, so I just volunteered and learnt as much as I could. I asked a lot of questions about their processes and circuitry and eventually started writing small program modules to be integrated in their projects. My program did not allow students to avail any paid opportunities off the campus and hence it was often difficult for students to find internships for the summer.
Having networked my way into the research lab, I found an unpaid internship at a technology company in NYU’s Brooklyn incubator called Alexapath which was run by some NYU Alumni. Alexapath was my first professional work experience in this field, they worked towards developing digital microscopy. My job entailed testing out various electronic components for them with a microcontroller for benchmarking and preparing small usable snippets of code to run those components. It was very helpful to learn how to work in a professional environment. This was the first time I was contributing to work that helped them make product decisions for their company. That internship helped me a lot to break my own barriers.
I continued with my degree afterwards, still helping out in the research lab and took up teaching robotics to K-12 students as an on campus job. It took me an extra semester to finish my studies as I had switched majors after completing one semester, but the extra time spent at the school only helped my research.
How did you get your first break?
Startups and companies would often visit the Robotics lab at NYU. On one such visit my current day CEO was visiting the lab. They were there to reach out to the professor and to learn about the work that was happening at the lab. They liked my research project on mobile robots and invited me to an interview with them.
In my research project I used a mobile robot for toddlers with special needs to get around in the environment of their house.The mobile robot that I used by Adept technologies had 80 lbs payload and could accommodate a toddler seat. The robot was then controlled by an iPad application that I built. It allowed the child to look at the environment through the iPad’s camera. On touching the screen, the application would send the pixel of the screen, which was used to calculate the angle and an estimated distance. It would take the mobile robot in that direction, which would allow toddlers to explore their environment without having to learn to use a joystick. Safety systems were also put in place to keep the robot from collisions. The NYU Robotics lab is involved with a lot of projects to find solutions for specially abled humans or rehabilitation cases. My inspiration for the project came from it.
I had several rounds of interviews and a design challenge before they offered me a part time job. My part time eventually converted to a full time job with them and I have been a part of the Toggle team since then.
What were the challenges you faced? How did you address them?
Challenge 1: When I decided to study mechanical engineering for my bachelor’s I knew it was not going to be easy. There were a total of 4 girls in my batch of 150 people. It came with a lot of challenges which were worsened by the language barrier I faced in Karnataka. As a woman I faced an added level of difficulty in the form of persistent mudslinging. There was a lot of unwanted name calling and harassment which in turn would worry my parents. They would often suggest that I switch over to a branch like CS or IT where the female population is more so it would be easier for me, but I did not budge. I had known since 13 that this was what I wanted to study and I was not ready to give up. I told myself everyday that I was only there to study and that was all that mattered. There were professors who would refuse to acknowledge me at all and refuse to answer my doubts, I was often told that I did not belong there and I was ruining the study culture for other students. I only focused on being consistent and doing my work. I decided the only way I could show people that I actually belonged there was by being good at it and not giving up. I spent my time at the library and focused on studying. I cannot say I changed anyone’s point of view but only took lessons for myself.
Challenge 2: As a result of studying in a male dominated environment, I was so conscious of asking the wrong questions that I had stopped asking questions altogether. I would spend hours trying to solve a problem which could easily be solved with only a little help from a senior or a teacher. My self sufficiency was hindering my ability to learn. The environment at the NYU research lab and Alexapath helped me a lot to come out of my shell. All the people I came across were very kind and willing to help. I had to force myself to reach out to people and ask questions. Because all these years, I was so focused on not making mistakes I realised I was not taking any risks at all. I was not pushing my own boundaries. I was so afraid to break the lab equipment or the high end robots and controllers they had for learning, that I was not using them at all. I had to push myself, in which my Professor at NYU was very instrumental. This one time the communication port burnt on a robot that I was using and he very nonchalantly asked me to order a replacement part and fix it. It was a revelation to me, I could just learn to fix what I break instead of never trying. I brought this habit in practice and just learnt to fix things that I may break while learning. It helped me to keep moving ahead even at my workplace. I learnt to ask questions and accept that there were no stupid questions.
Where do you work now? Tell us what you do
I work at Toggle Industries now, which is a construction robotics startup. Toggle utilizes industrial robots along with proprietary software and hardware to perform physically difficult, repetitive and dangerous tasks previously accomplished with manual labor. The result is increased productivity, precision and worker safety. Toggle’s first product is a manufacturing system for steel reinforcement assembly that is embedded in concrete.
What problems do you solve?
At Toggle my main focus is on the hardware. I design and develop hardware fixtures for the robots to hold the work pieces with required precision and tooling to enable the robot to perform pick, place, orient and weld operations with efficiency. I also work on the hardware and the software aspects of the safety system that is put in place to ensure worker safety. As a robotics engineer my work is also to translate the physical world to the digital world. I break down the fixtures, tools and the complex geometrical shapes of reinforcement steel into mathematical models for using it in the path planning for the robotic arm.
What skills are needed for the job? How did you acquire the skills?
The major skills involved in my work are mathematical which come from my background in engineering. I had to eventually learn to interpret construction drawings and break them down to align it with the robotic assembly process. My previous work experience and Alexapath and K-12 teaching center helped me with my communication skills. I spend a lot of my time reading about the robotics research happening in academia on a regular basis to learn about the new tools and algorithms that are being developed around the world.
What’s a typical day like?
At Toggle we have an overarching goal for everyone and it is broken down into smaller tasks over the 2-3 week development sprints. So on a typical day I look at my schedule for the sprint and the task set to achieve in that. If it is a sprint focussed on the hardware then it starts with drawing a concept, filling in the details, running stress analysis on those components, prototyping, fabrication, deployment and testing. I work on a hardware process end to end. Similarly if I am working on a software sprint, we start with writing down the user stories around the requirement of that software, develop a scheme for its front end, I work with the front end team to develop the maths required on the backend of the program. Once the software has achieved a beta status we test it out with users and learn from it.
What is it you love about this job?
Since Toggle is a startup my role is not tied up to a particular field of task. I am always learning something new and working towards developing ingenious solutions for our problems. I came to Toggle as a robotics hardware engineer but it has allowed me to expand my horizons from hardware to developing proprietary algorithms useful in path planning for our application purposes. I work as a bridge with the software team and the hardware team getting useful experiences out of both. My learning curve has been exponential, I have worked with setting up factory floors and process path planning to develop user experience for our software.
How does your work benefit society?
For a very long time construction has been a legacy industry, it has been resistant to change. A lot of practices have been put in place to protect the workers and despite that, construction site injury is very common. My work is focused towards making such dangerous tasks easy for humans, to enable humans to become machine operators instead of physically strenuous tasks. I also actively volunteer as an industry mentor for students who are looking to build careers in Mechatronics/Robotics through a non profit program. I hope to inspire more women to partake in STEM careers. I am thankful to all the women who broke ground before me, for me to even get this chance and more power to those that follow.
Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!
A part of our process is to interpret construction drawings and convert them to cartesian data for the robot to understand. A major portion of that work was being done manually until I conceptualised and developed an algorithm to do the interpretation and conversion through a software. The software is now in the works for development and will help us build a smooth flow from identifying components on construction drawings to placing them in the robotic work cell. It will allow us to directly enter certain file formats used in the industry for civil drawings and extracting useful data from them.
Your advice to students based on your experience?
As a rule I always chose my career options on the basis of what was interesting to me. The main questions that I have tried to answer are, ‘Can I do this everyday, all my life ?’ , ‘Will it offer me personal growth in terms of knowledge and satisfaction ?’ and ‘Can this career option have a long life?’
Learn to keep your time appointments. People always value people with good ethics. It is tedious. I am still learning to manage my time, it is a work in progress, but it helps.
Always communicate. This one came to me with great difficulty. I would always disappear when I did not have an answer or deflect. But eventually I learnt it is important to communicate, if you are late, if you made a mistake or if you just do not know the answer. It is okay as long as you communicate so maybe you and the other person can come up with a strategy to any problem that is there.
Do not give up. You do not have to compare your successes to anyone else’s. You decide your own goals and once you know what they are you keep moving towards it, however long it takes.
I do not believe that I know what my big picture is yet. I do the work that makes me happy. Currently I am focused towards work and learning from it as much as I can, so when I am ready to move forward from this role, I will have the tools for it. Until then I am gathering the small pieces and adding them together. I definitely want to continue working with robots and hope to bring more solutions in the world that benefit people.