The concept of a self-propelled vehicle as a means of air transportation is difficult to imagine. But it all depends on how far you can take your imagination to bring it a step closer to reality !

Sohan Suvarna, our next pathbreaker, PhD student at the IITB-Monash Research Academy, designs and develops Autonomous Airships, or in simple words, self-piloted balloon drones, while addressing the challenges of controlling their movement in flight.

Sohan talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about being introduced to the fascinating world of Robotics and UAVs during his undergrad and subsequently taking up research in Autonomous Airships, a combination of UAVs and Robotics.

For students, don’t be hasty in your career decisions, because what you ultimately aspire for will never come easy. Instead, take your time, prepare yourself and wait for the right opportunity that takes you towards your goal.

Sohan, tell us about Your background?

Although I do not recollect most of my early pre-school days, I have been constantly reminded that I was stubborn when it came to studies. My mother made a herculean effort in teaching me how to read and write. From there on, I pretty much read everything I could get my hands on. In the 90s, reading material was scarce. My mother used to collect newspaper clippings on science and technology for me to read. Many of these clippings were in Kannada, and I only knew how to read in English. My mother would read these articles and translate them to me in a way an eight-year-old could understand. I owe my curiosity and my aptitude to her. It was she who ignited my passion for science and technology.

My mother passed away when I was eleven years old, and I moved in with my grandmother in Mangalore. I had to leave behind my school and my friends in Mumbai. It was not easy to adjust to the new school and make new friends, primarily because of Mumbai and Mangalore’s cultural differences. My new school required me to learn Kannada as the second language, and so I did. It took me some time to adjust to my new home. I found solace in the school library, reading encyclopedias and science magazines. My curiosity made me question everything I learnt. While I found answers to some of my questions in the books, reading about science and technology only made me more curious. I was a full-on nerd to the core. I still am.

In my seventh grade, one of my cousins helped me build a bridge-crane for the science model competition in my school. This was a turning point in my childhood because I realised how easy it was to make stuff. After that, I dismantled my battery-powered toys for spare parts to build my models. I experimented with everything I could find around me. I recall building models of motorboats, sailing boats, elevators, and wind turbines. At some point during my many experiments and model-building, I decided that I wanted to be an engineer. I just didn’t realise the kind of engineer I wanted to be.  

After my tenth grade, I chose to pursue my interests in science. Since I was enrolled in the Karnataka State Board, I had the option of selecting electronics, as an elective, in addition to the classic science combo- physics, chemistry and mathematics. My passion for science was evident in my grades. While most of my peers enrolled themselves for coaching classes during the vacation, I decided to study independently. My self-study did pay off when I cracked the AIEEE exams and got admitted to the National Institute of Technology, Karnataka (NITK). 

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

After my 12th grade, I got admitted to the Bachelor of Technology in Mechanical engineering at the National Institute of Technology, Karnataka (NITK). Upon graduation, I worked as an assistant design engineer at MECON Limited, a Government of India enterprise. At MECON Ltd., I primarily did engineering consultancy for metallurgical companies. After three years at MECON Ltd., I quit my job to pursue my doctorate in aerial robotics. I joined the IITB-Monash Research Academy, which offers a joint PhD program by IIT Bombay and Monash University. At the time of this interview, I am drafting my PhD thesis and looking forward to completing my PhD by the end of 2021.

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

My time at NITK was quite fascinating. For the first time in my life, I had come across people who shared the same passion for science and technology as me. There were student clubs/ associations that enabled students of similar interests to pursue a common goal. One such club that I was a part of was the robotics club. I was formally introduced to robotics through a series of workshops conducted by the robotics club. This was the first time I had a name for all the model-building I did in my school days. Towards the end of my first year of engineering, I had the basic skill sets required to make an autonomous line-following robot. 

During my first year vacation, one of my lecturers offered me an internship to work on an ornithopter. An ornithopter is basically a flying vehicle with flapping wings like that of a bird. After several failed attempts, my two teammates and I managed to build a rubber-powered ornithopter that flew. After our success with the ornithopter, we became a part of the NITK-UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle) team. As a team, we built a small unmanned aircraft with enhanced communication for disaster management. We participated in many national competitions, including those hosted by the National Research Development Corporation. We even won a couple of events. I presented my first paper on the work we did on UAVs at the 24th Indian Engineering Conference.

To pursue my interests in robotics, I collaborated with my colleagues from the Robotics club. I participated in several inter-university robotics competitions. These competitions made me learn from my mistakes, and I got inspiration from my opponents to build better robots. Our project on an all-terrain robot was shortlisted among the top 10 projects under Niyantra hosted by National Instruments. In my final year, I was made the joint convenor of the Robotics club. I hosted the ‘Robowars’ event, for the first time at NITK, during the annual technical festival ‘Engineer-2011’. 

In the current times, Internet-of-Things (IoT) is a well-established field. However, in the early 2010s, it was still a new field. For my final year project, I formed a team with my classmates, and we decided to work on virtual laboratories. The project’s idea was to enable students worldwide to remotely conduct experiments on a physical system located at NITK. We were able to successfully demonstrate the remote-triggered experiments over the internet. I feel proud when I saw some of the work we had done for our Bachelor’s project is still used to this day. 

During my undergraduate studies, I enjoyed working with UAVs and building robots. But it was not until I was employed that I found out what my real calling was. 

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

At the end of my graduation, I had two placement offers: one from  a private firm, Tata Technologies and the other from a Govt. of India enterprise, MECON Ltd. Although I knew what my passion was, I sought advice from many people. Most of them advised me to join MECON Ltd., because it was a government firm. MECON Ltd. even offered me a handsome package. For a student who was used to living on tiny sums of pocket money, this was a game-changer. I opted to join MECON Ltd., simply because I wanted to earn well. 

At MECON Ltd., I was initially posted in the Management Advisory Services, where I primarily worked on drafting the techno-economic feasibility report for the proposed projects. I was later transferred to the IT services, where I learnt database management and overlooked networking jobs at the plant sites. Although I was earning well, I was not content with what I was doing. This was the period when I realised that my true passion was in engineering robots and UAVs. I eventually decided to pursue my interests rather than just sticking to a stable, well-paying job. 

At first, I thought of trying my hand at robotics and aerospace companies. But my applications were rejected, probably because I lacked relevant industry experience. It made me realise how important the first job is. Recruiters tend to stereotype applicants based on the applicant’s experience and for a valid reason. From the recruiter perspective, it is a gamble to hire someone with no relevant experience. The only choice I had was to do a post-graduation. 

Because I already had made poor choices in picking my first job, I did not want to hastily decide my future career path. I needed a game-plan. After a lot of thinking and discussion with my friends, I decided to be a researcher. And for me to be a researcher, I first needed a Masters degree and then a PhD. I managed to spend three hours every day after work preparing for GRE. I even got a decent GRE score. 

When I was shortlisting Universities for pursuing my Masters, I got a call from my friend and NITK-UAV teammate. He told me about the IITB-Monash Research Academy. He mentioned that there was a research project which suited my profile. I looked up at the program and the proposed research project. To my surprise, the project was an amalgamation of both UAVs and robotics. The project was on the design and development of autonomous airships. However, when I checked the eligibility criteria for the research project, I was disappointed. I did not meet the eligibility criteria since the project required the applicant to hold either a Bachelors or Masters in either aerospace or electrical engineering. Albeit, I decided to test my luck and apply for this project. Little did I know that this was the path set for me.

How did you get your first break?

What followed my application to the IITB-Monash Research Academy was a surprise. I had been shortlisted for an interview with the project supervisors. This was the break I had been seeking! I knew I had to make this opportunity count. After all, this opportunity gave me a direct route to PhD while skipping my Masters. The program also offered a full scholarship for four years.

As much as I was delighted by getting shortlisted for the interview, I was also anxious about it. I had been out of academics for three years. I spent the time until my interview, brushing up my basics and reading scientific papers.

My interview at IIT Bombay was a marathon of 45 minutes. I had a good feeling about the interview, and I felt pretty positive about it. After the interview, my supervisor talked to me, and he told me that he is going to consider me for the project. 

What were the challenges you faced? How did you address them?

Challenge 1: 

Building robots and UAVs is an expensive hobby for a student. Spare parts like motors, batteries, chassis, the controller board, etc., all cost a fortune from a student’s perspective. I had to manage my finances. I sought scholarships from several charitable organisations. I was on the lookout for any scholarship in the newspapers and on the internet. I was able to collect a sufficient amount to support my rather expensive hobby.

Furthermore, whenever I would come across a call for a project proposal, I would write down a proposal and apply for it. The chances of getting the student project approved are pretty slim; however, there is no harm in trying. Out of the several project proposals I wrote, only one got approved. 

Challenge 2:

The most challenging part of my career was probably making a transition from industry life back to academics. After I graduated from NITK, I was out of academics for 3 years. I had forgotten what it is to be a student. Since I do not have a Masters degree, I was required to do one-year coursework at IIT Bombay and maintain an 8 point CGPA. Doing control and aerospace courses for a mechanical engineering graduate could be overwhelming. I lacked the basic foundation required for the courses at IIT Bombay. The only way to overcome this was to spend more time learning the basics. My friends were very supportive during this period. I also used to watch lectures on Youtube to strengthen the basics required for each course. 

Where do you work now? Tell us about your research

As of the time of this interview, I am a PhD student at the IITB-Monash Research Academy. I have recently returned to Mumbai after I concluded my research at Monash University in Melbourne. I am currently writing my thesis, and I hope to finish my PhD by the end of this year.

What problems do you solve?

My research problem is on designing and developing autonomous airships. Or, in simple words, I make self-piloted balloon drones! If you have ever seen a kid holding a helium balloon, you will notice that it is not very easy to keep the balloon in place. It is because they are very light, and wind has a significant impact on them. Airships are very similar to helium balloons. In my research, I am trying to solve the problem of how to effectively control airships. 

What skills are needed for your job? How did you acquire the skills?

My research is multidisciplinary in nature. Knowledge of aircraft design, flight dynamics, and control is essential for my research. I acquired these skills by doing relevant courses. I use Coursera and Youtube quite extensively to learn stuff.

Additionally, a good knowledge of programming is also required as it is essential in every aspect of the work. I use MATLAB for running simulations and C/C++ for implementation on hardware. I often use Solidworks/ Creo when I have to design a new airship.

What is a typical day like?

The good thing and the bad thing about PhD life is that there are no typical days! Some days, I spend my time writing about my research like I am doing right now. Some days, I sit in front of my computer coding all day but mostly hunting bugs in the code. Some days, I toil in the laboratory building airships. Some days, I just sit in the park, thinking of different ways to solve a problem. And on some other days, I just walk around like a headless chicken, thinking of what to do next!

What is it you love about this job? 

I like being a researcher because I feel like I do something new and novel. I get to decide what problem I want to work on. It gives me complete freedom over the kind of solution I can provide for a particular problem. It is the offering of boundless creativity that I love most about being a researcher.

How does your work benefit society? 

The vision I have for airships is futuristic. Airships offer an eco-friendly means of air transportation. They don’t have to burn fuel to stay up in the air like aeroplanes do. Fill the airship with a lighter than air gas, and it would stay afloat in the air. They could also serve as a cheaper alternative for low altitude satellites. The applications of airships are limited by one’s imagination. One of the reasons why airships are not so popular today is that they are hard to control. My research would allow us to take one step closer towards that reality!

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

This is a difficult one to answer. I would have to say it was the day I flew an airship for the first time. I had experience flying quadcopters, but flying an airship was totally different. I was anxious because airships often tend to lose control. I had heard stories about it from my supervisor. But the first time I flew an airship, it felt different. Airships fly very slowly and have a very sluggish response to control commands. It is challenging to steer an airship as it flies, but that was indeed the fun part.

Your advice to students based on your experience?

Like most interviewees on the Interview Portal, my first and foremost advice to the readers would be to follow your passion. Determine and understand what makes your heart tick. Know what you are passionate about and take every step to walk towards your goal. It doesn’t matter if you are slow because it is not a race. Take your time, and just do it!

My second advice would be to be aware of distractions. It is easy to get distracted by things like money and easy life. We often get comfortable with what we get and forget what we really sought in life. People will say a particular path is good for you, but they do not know you like you know yourself. It is better to choose your own path rather than let others pick one for you. Do not chase comfort; seek yourself.

My final advice to the readers would be to accept yourself. We often tend to lose ourselves because of the circumstances we are in. Make your peace with the cards you have been dealt with. How you play those cards is totally up to you. Acceptance is the key. Once you accept yourself for who you are, you will have a direction to follow.

Future Plans?

Do more research and build more flying robots!