Animal Planet, National Geographic, and the Discovery channel have kindled our imagination and given us a path to fulfill our aspirations. You never know when your career might intersect with your childhood dreams !
Krishnakumar Thirunavukkarasu, our next pathbreaker, Drone Technologist & Co-Founder at ROV LABS, designs and develops indigenous hybrid drones to address challenges in Leopard/Tiger Conservation, Forestry, Agricultural and Military applications.
Krishnakumar talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about transforming his childhood experiences into a career in autonomous flying technologies to address challenging problems across domains with a broader vision for social good.
For students, don’t evaluate yourself based on how you compare with others. If you want to compete, become a better version of yourself by being unique.
Krishnakumar, tell us about your background?
I grew up in Vellore, which is a city with famous landmarks such as The Vellore Fort, where the first war of independence had started, Sri Lakshmi Narayani Golden Temple, Amirthi Zoological park, and many more.
I like living in my hometown. It’s a quiet place, and it’s small enough that you can get to know your neighbours and have a sense of community. But sometimes I find it a bit difficult to find some electronic components from the local electronic shop and there’s not much nightlife either.
I come from a middle class family and was raised by my single mother and my uncle.
My family members and my school teachers thought I was a below-average student because I didn’t get the marks needed to pass my class tests. They couldn’t believe that I got more than 50% marks in my 10th public examination.
I enjoy playing Carrom, Cricket, Drawing, and Street games like Goli and Gilli. These are my favourite childhood games.
My real inspiration comes from the Discovery Channel, Animal Planet, National Geographic, and Cartoons like Astro Boy, Ben 10, and Naruto.
My Goal – “Watching other people doing things that I one day hope to have the opportunity to do.”
What did you do for graduation?
After completing my SSLC, I wanted to learn computers because I love playing video games. So, I decided to take computer science group for my higher studies (+1 and+2). But I was refused the computer science group because of my SSLC marks.
So, the next option was a Diploma in Computer Science. One of my family friends suggested the Swamy Abedhanandha Polytechnic College for its excellent coaching, and hence we decided to go to the college. My mom also accepted my decision, but told us that we should go the next day instead of today, just because it was Tuesday , and people don’t do good things on Tuesday.
The next day, we went to the college, and we asked for the computer science group, but the admissions for computer science had closed the day before. There were only two courses available, one was Civil and another one was Robotics. The next moment I said ok, and I joined the Diploma in Robotics.
What made me choose Robotics? How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and unusual career?
I knew I could find a computer science course in other colleges, but I didn’t do that. Why? Because I had only one thing in my mind, “Astro Boy,” my favourite cartoon series after I heard the word Robotics. In that series, when Reno fixes the broken Robot, professor Hiroshi says, “Reno, you should study Robotics.” So that’s why I chose Robotics.
I made one promise to myself that I would learn to program the robot-like Reno before I finish my Diploma in Robotics from SAPC, Thellar. In 2010, my Diploma was awarded, and I passed the Diploma in First class with distinction.
I understood how PID controllers worked and how we could use the PID controller to control robot movement and any other processes like temperature or position control etc.
In my final year, I had the opportunity to access the Robotics lab and test the pick and place robot in that lab. I have programmed the 6 DOF (Degrees of Freedom) to pick and place robots using the forward kinematic method.
“Yes, finally, I fulfilled my promise.”
After I finished my Diploma successfully, the question was, what should I do next? Believe me or not, I still didn’t have any goal or vision for my future. I had two options: one was a campus interview, and the other was engineering.
My family members told me that the decision was mine !
One of my seniors told me that I would get a job for sure through the campus interview, though I would have to stand 8 hours near the CNC machine every day.
So I checked the available engineering courses like Computer, Mechanical, and Electronics …….etc, and I suddenly saw Mechatronics Engineering. At that moment, I decided to take up Mechatronics Engineering.
What made me choose Mechatronics? Tell us about your career path
There was no TV to watch in my hostel, but I love to read about science and technology, so I decided to go to the library every day after college, and I used to read weekly magazines like CHIP, Efy, and AutoX…Etc.
You may ask why I didn’t play cricket. In my hostel grounds, because of the crowd, we had to wait for hours to play, and I don’t like to watch others play, so I quit playing cricket from my diploma days and started going to the library.
One day I saw an article on Mechatronics, saying that.”Mechatronics is a superset of robotic technologies. The discipline is a study of interactions between mechanical systems, electrical systems, and control theory. It covers a diverse field of electro-mechanical systems, from simple on/off controls to a sophisticated robotic system.” To cut a long story short, that article mentioned that if you want to build a robot, you should know Mechatronics.
After completing my mechatronics engineering, I wanted to learn Brain-Computer Robotics, so I searched for the brain control robotics course in Chennai, and I found it in one institute. I went to the institute, and told them about my background and why I was here, and what I wanted to learn. The fee to learn the Brain Control Interface course was Rs. (XY,000 -INR), almost half the cost of my engineering degree. So I asked the institute if I could work there and learn BCI as well. After a lengthy discussion, they accepted me, and they told me they would also agree to give me a monthly salary of (x,000 IND) for my work, so I joined as a Robotic Tutor in that institution.
What were some of the challenges you faced in your career?
Being a robotics tutor itself was a challenging task for me. I was new to the teaching field. Learning robotics and teaching robotics are completely different skills. Why?, because children are curious! They have doubts about robotics, but they also have doubts like how airplanes, rockets, and helicopters fly. So, for me, every day was challenging.
After six months, I did one project for ME students. That project was a Brain Control Robot. So finally, my dream came true as I built the robot from scratch. I built the Robot all by myself, and also programmed the Robot. Finally, I achieved my goal.
After I finished my Brain Control Robot project, I didn’t have any future goals. So I challenged myself to update my knowledge every day.
One engineering student asked me, how a Quadcopter worked? When I started explaining the basic principles and fundamentals about the physics of drones,.he asked me, “Sir, I have one Quadcopter with me, but it’s not in working condition. Can you fix the issue?” And the very next day, I fixed that issue and flew the Quadcopter. He was so excited and happy.
How did you get your first break as Robotics Engineer?
After I fixed the drone, I decided to learn more about drone technology, so I started learning about flight controllers and their types. I knew that only reading books and articles wouldn’t help me. I needed hands-on experience. So I decided to buy components online. But I realised that the cost was way beyond my budget. So I started looking for drone components from a local shop. On such a trip, I met one of my friends. He told me that he was also working with drones. We shared our experiences. He said that we could work together as a team. I said yes, and next month I joined as a Robotic engineer in a company called “Airpod”. In that company, they were planning to develop a pesticide spraying drone for Agriculture.
My first challenge was to find a fully autonomous spraying system. At that time, there was no such readily available spraying system in the market for Drones. So we built a spraying system from scratch, which could be controlled by an android mobile app. In the future, I plan to integrate this spraying system with a flight controller unit.
After we developed the (POC – Proof of Concept) for the agricultural drone and were doing multiple tests with the drone, the company suddenly called for a meeting. They told us that we would have to stop the project because we didn’t have the funds for further development. So I started working alone as a freelancer.
As a freelancer, the only challenge is that I have had to finish the project before the timeline and find a new project before the deadline. I have done many projects as a freelancer.
I have conducted two drone workshops and three robotics workshops in Chennai with my friends.
When I was freelancing, one of my friends told me about a job opening for a drone engineer at the Wildlife Institute of India. So, I applied for that job, and I also got selected in their E-Bird technology for the Tiger Conservation drone project. There is an article published in The Hindu & Times of India.
My first challenge was to understand the problems in the forest and figure out how I could solve those problems. After talking to the people, I realised there are thousands of issues inside the reserve area, many of which could be solved with the help of drones. First, we focused on solving poaching activities inside the reserve area by frequent border patrolling and monitoring. So we decided to develop one fixed-wing drone for border patrolling and a multirotor drone for monitoring purposes.
Here are some of our achievements from the E-Bird project:
E-Bird Project publications:
E-Bird technology Introductory Manual for Managers and Biologists (2017)
E-Bird technology for Tiger Conservation (2019)
UAV Training for IFS trainees:
In the GNFA tour, we did a brief demonstration and explained our drone’s critical flight characteristics and applications to the IFS trainees and forest officers..
Aerial Data collection:
Aerial Data collection of Indian Gaur, Chital, Feral Cattle and Elephant was completed in selective sites in Thotakombai, Thengumarahada, Thalavadi, Sugilkutti, Pattamangalam Beat, Mavallam, Germalam, TN Palayam, Uppupalayam at Sathyamangalam Tiger reserve.
Animal counting & monitoring using a drone:
In Sathyamangalam, we flew a drone for animal counting & monitoring, river stream connection, mapping the villages to analyse village development, and encroachment.
UAV Workshop on wildlife conservation using drones :
In Bannari Amman Institute of Technology, we conducted a two day drone awareness program for college students and forest officers. Overall, 120 people participated. In that program, we briefly explained how drones could be used effectively for wildlife management.
Leopard Monitoring at STR:
Drones were used to monitor leopard movement in abandoned quarries at Soosaipuram villages. Article got Published in The Hindu, C.P.R. Environmental Education Centre, Chennai & Times of India.
Elephant death Investigation in Hasanur division:
Two elephants were electrocuted after they came in contact with an illegal electric fence around a sugarcane field at Karalavadi village near Jeerahal Thalavadi forest range. So we investigated the death with the forest department and Wildlife Crime Investigation team to find the source of the power supply and collected the evidence for the first investigation report Article which got published In The Hindu, The Times of India & Asian Elephant NEWS.org.
UAV workshop for forest department:
Hands-on UAV Training was conducted in the Sathyamangalam Tiger Reserve, for 60 forest staff regarding monitoring wild animals, border Surveillance, forest fire, man-animal conflict, and the encroachment of forest land. Article got Published In:- The Hindu, The Times of India & NEWS 7.
What prompted you to take up the job at WII?
After I quit the job at Airpod, I could have taken up any job, like IoT Developer, Robotic Tutor, Robotic Engineer, or Drone engineer. But, I didn’t want to do only one thing for the rest of my life because I love what I was doing as a freelancer. But I quit my freelancing job and joined the Wildlife Institute of India. Why?
In my childhood, I used to watch Animal Planet, National Geographic, and Discovery channel. I love watching Man vs Wild. Even though I wish to hike and camp like bear Grylls inside the forest, at that time I did not think about it (for some reason). So I took up the offer at WII because I didn’t want to miss the opportunity after seeing the job opening at the Wildlife Institute of India.
Even though I knew that WII’s salary was far lesser than what I was earning as a freelancer. But without having a second thought, I chose to join the WII. Why? Because
“Money Can’t Buy Happiness.”
What do you do currently? Tell us about your work
In 2018, I read an article in the Hindu newspaper. The Maharashtra government releases funds for the families of farmers who died while spraying pesticides. I felt so bad after reading the article because just two years back I had developed a pesticide spraying drone, which might have saved some farmer’s lives if that product had been launched. At that time, I wanted to help the farmers, but I didn’t know how to solve the problem because farmers face multiple issues such as crop health, groundwater availability, minerals present in the soil etc. I knew I couldn’t solve all the problems right away, so I decided to make one goal: in the next two years I would start a robotic company that would support farmers.
So I decided to find the right person to develop the agricultural drone. I discussed the idea with my friend. He agreed to it. So, we founded the company, “ROVLabs” in Chennai, through which we plan to support agriculture, forestry, and the military using the latest Drone technology.
What problems do you solve? How does your work benefit society?
I believe, based on my research, that farmers need technological support not only for planting and harvesting crops but also before and after harvest.
Following are some of the problems we can solve:
Soil Testing provides valuable information on pH and plant-available nutrients. Testing the soil before planting is mandatory, and it’s not an easy task for the farmer to get the soil test results because they have to wait for days to get accurate results regarding the soil characteristics and the proper amount of lime, water, and fertiliser to apply to the soil.
So we plan to provide technical support to the farmer to do the soil test within hours. We are also providing a crop health monitoring system that will show the famers how healthy their crop is, as well as the water level and minerals present in the soil.
Farmers mainly grow genetically modified seeds. In the process of spraying pesticides on crops, they inhale micro-level pesticides which could cause cancer, or in the worst case, death, while spraying the pesticides in the field, because, for spraying on an area of one acre, they have to stand in the area for nearly one day
Hence, we have developed a pesticide spraying drone that will spray 16 litres of pesticide on a one acre field within 5 minutes.
Military surveillance drone:
Drones are the future of warfare, but India has only a few drones, and even most of the drones are made in “xxxxx” countries. Our primary invaders are China and Pakistan, so now the Indian government is buying drones from the foreign countries.
So we are developing an indigenous system that has been fully designed and manufactured in India.
What skills are needed for a job? How did you acquire the skills?
I am already good at developing Robotic Systems, IoT Systems, and Drone coding. So, designing the perfect drone is not a big issue because a drone is just a tool. If you have a reliable tool, the tool can be used for any applications like military, agricultural, or forestry etc.
The real problem lies in gathering the domain knowledge about agriculture, military, and forestry. If I want to solve the problem, I have to know all the information about the issue with regard to when, how, and why it’s happening and the traditional methods that have been successfully used earlier and if those methods are already available to interface the technology to the drone.
I acquire knowledge by reading books, attending online webinars, and by meeting people.
What’s a typical day like? What is it you love about this job?
I like this job because I acquire new knowledge daily by solving problems from various fields. My typical day begins by writing the entire task in my diary and sorting them based on the priority and difficulty of the job. After sorting the task, I start finishing the task one by one. I don’t multitask because I have to give my maximum potential to every one of my jobs.
“I focus on one problem at a time.”
Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!
“White Tree,” because this is the first project which I developed from scratch. Most of my friends did robots, drones, & electronics for engineering projects, but I had something different in my mind, the idea that my project had to solve a real-life problem.
On the discovery channel, I saw one documentary on global warming. In that documentary, they said, “Carbon dioxide causes 80% of global warming”. One average tree can absorb 22kg of (Co2) carbon dioxide.
I wanted to solve the problem using technology, so I developed the White Tree. It has three layers: dust filters in the first layer, a carbon filter which absorbs the carbon from the carbon dioxide, and the oxygen obtained in the third layer.
Conclusion: The White Tree helps absorb 15 grams of carbon dioxide per day. So, if we have four devices, they will absorb 22kg of carbon dioxide per year.
Your advice to students based on your experience?
Giving advice is easy but listening to the advice is difficult. And advice is not typical for everyone, because everybody needs different solutions for their different problems.
Let me tell you how I tackled my problem:
When I was studying at school, people told me that I am a failure, but I have proved them wrong.
Failing does not give you a reason to give up, as long as you believe in yourself.
I never give up without even trying. I give my best to solve the problem.
I believe hard work is worthless if you don’t believe in yourself.
I never have one goal for more than a year because I believe a goal is never gonna be a constant one. If you have the same goal for more than one year, it means you never updated your knowledge on that topic because technology is growing faster. Hence, one year before, if you had something in your mind, it’s old technology. So, I keep updating my knowledge and my goal as well.
“You can’t change your past ,but you can learn from it and change your future.”
If you are interested in knowing about my future plans, just follow me on LinkedIn, and if you want to join us, please contact me. My name is KrishnaKumar Thirunavukkarasu and my email id is firstname.lastname@example.org.
I will mention a few of my projects from different categories.
Animatronics: robot hands that will mimic your hand gestures.
Android app-controlled Cleaning Robot.
Automatic face tracking system for home security using OpenCV.
Pattern following Robot for shopping mall trolley using OpenCV.
Internet of things –IOT:
voice control Home automation with android app & IoT.
IoT-based automatic garden monitoring and control system using android app.
Pollution and Weather monitoring drones.
Auto waypoint drone with package dropping capability.
2D & 3D mapping project:
I did a few smart city mapping projects with my friends.