Technology can teach us a lot about evolution by providing us clues through data which helps us understand how animals behave and react to various situations and scenarios.

Buragadda Sai Krishna, our next pathbreaker, Robot R&D Engineer at National Geographic’s Animatronics division, works on developing research databases and prototypes which try to replicate animal behaviour.

Sai talks to  Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about his trip to the Jim Corbett National Park in 10th std that exposed him to the natural world through the photographic lens and later through animatronics, a technology used to mimic animal behaviour.

For students, robotics is not just about hi-tech industries. Biologists and Bioengineers rely on animatronics to address conservation challenges in the natural world.

Sai, your background?

I was born in a small bustling town of Andhra Pradesh known as Eluru. I belong to a family of 4. My dad works in the public sector and my mother is a homemaker with a Master’s degree in mathematics. Due to the nature of dad’s job, we relocated every 5 years. I did my major part of my schooling from Delhi. 

Due to the exposure and support I received from my school and family, I went on to play Badminton at National Level and represented Uttar Pradesh at various events. I had the opportunity to learn Martial arts (Taekwondo) at a very early age which shaped my physical fitness.

I hold a master’s degree in performance arts (tabla) from Allahabad Sangeet Samiti and in Visual arts (Painting) from Shilpayan. I had several opportunities to showcase my skills at tabla jugalbandis at various national and international events.

I was in my 5th class when my parents gifted me a “Nikon D3200 “ DSLR for my birthday. I used to venture around with the camera and try to click pictures of everything that I found interesting. This habit of mine slingshotted my interest in photography and animals.

That very year I got to know about a company known as Boston Dynamics which was trying to replicate animal behavior using sophisticated robots.

Fast forward to 2017, It was the year when I had just completed my 10th class exams and was given 2 months summer break. During this period, I got acquainted with a person who was a professional wildlife photographer by profession. By then I had clicked a lot of wildlife pictures with my DSLR, so I showed them to him to get his feedback and to understand how to click better photos. To my surprise, that person liked quite a few of my pictures and gave me an opportunity to join him on a trip to Jim Corbett National Park for a 2-day photography event. That was my first ever professional exposure to Wildlife photography.

After 2 years of dabbling in photography and sending those photos to reputed societies , I was finally offered a role of freelancer at National Geographic society. Yeah!! You read it right, National Geographic society.

And by then, Boston Dynamics had developed a robot called “Spot” which tries to imitate a dog .  So I thought to myself, “Why not combine both of my interests? ” 

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

I’m currently pursuing my bachelor’s Degree from Vellore Institute of Technology, Vellore with a major in Mechanical Engineering (2018-22).

I wanted to pursue a course which would provide me with a platform to dive into all forms of robotics engineering. Every subject in the course had a group project. These group projects allowed me to interact with students from diverse backgrounds. It helped me in improving my soft skills and critical thinking ability. Moreover, this program helped me interact with many industry experts during guest lectures. The interactions with the industry experts helped me shape my career to a large extent. 

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

Being an undergraduate in mechanical engineering, I had a lot of interest in product development and designing. I was given offers from many student teams to join their clubs. I finally joined a robotics club at VIT known as “RoboVITics”. In that club, I learned a lot about robotics, especially about Combat Robotics and Machine Learning. As members from different branches regularly interacted with each other, it gave me an excellent opportunity to learn and share knowledge with them.

In the Second year of my College, I was selected to work with a group of elite engineers at ARC-VIT (Autonomous Research center) which developed models to replicate human behavior.

But unfortunately, the entire college went into lockdown because of COVID-19 and the students were sent back to home. Every project came to a halt. 

People had to become self-reliant from doing chores such as washing clothes, cooking. I remember reading an article about how amputees were having a hard time during this pandemic and lockdown. 

The very next month, I participated in a hackathon which was aimed at developing a medical product which would be easy to manufacture and develop. I came up with an idea of developing a semi-autonomous robotic arm which converts the Electromyography (EMG)  signals to robotic input signals and manipulates the arm. I tried to develop a prototype which helped us win the 1st prize in that hackathon and was awarded a cash prize of $500. That was the turning point in my career. 

That prototype not only allowed me to win the competition but also gave me an opportunity to work with a reputed research team from California, USA. This research division worked as a catalyst and made me more involved in the field of animatronics.

When I worked at Aluna Research lab, I was given a lot of exposure in the field of animatronics and prosthetics. Having regular meetings with fellow researchers from different parts of the world gave me insights into how the industry is and what future developments could be expected from this field of robotics.

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

I worked at SEDS VIT for 8 months. 

SEDS stands for “Students for the Exploration and Development of Space”. I was inducted in this Chapter by my College club after going through several rounds of tests and interviews which were aimed at measuring the knowledge and interest the applicants had towards the field of space and exploration. I joined that club to gain knowledge and understand interesting concepts about deep space exploration and theories.

As a major in mechanical engineering, I also applied for the robotics club of VIT called RoboVITics. The combat robotics division of the club was known as Orcus. Only a select few were allowed to apply for that division. In that division, I worked as a Testing and production engineer. This role consisted of developing robot prototypes in software and testing the feasibility of the production of the robot.

In the summer of 2020, I got to know that my neighbor was a professor and was developing a team to create a robot to map the forest cover and to prevent deforestation. I volunteered to join their team and assisted them in developing 3D models and systems required for collecting data. More specifically , I assisted in developing the mobility system for traversing the rugged terrain of the forest. 

Around the same time I was also working at Intelligent Mobility labs and in Automotive research on Autonomous systems and Robots.

Intelligent Mobility labs is a student team from all across the world who are interested in the field of development of autonomous vehicles and robots. I was approached by the founding members to join them. I initially joined them to learn more about this revolutionary and upcoming field. Later on, I became the Head of Product Development and helped them to come up with an initial prototype/design for a last mile delivery robot which was aimed at replacing the delivery people with autonomous robots. This project is still going on . We have come a long way since we started

Later on, I participated in several competitions and symposiums which were focused on developing medical devices. Seeing my rather fast-growing inclination towards animatronics, I decided to shift my department from photography to animal behavior research department at National Geographic society.

During several seminars and webinars, I got to connect with some researchers from companies such as Cyberdyne and Open bionics which are the market leaders at developing such medical devices.

How did you get your first break?

I got my first break after a lot of struggle and rejection. To be recognized in this field, you should have both soft-skills and hard-skills which are above average and should have a unique way of thinking. I got to harness those skills by regularly practicing the skills and dedicating several hours of effort to acquire those skills.

Initially, though I worked with NatGeo as a freelancer, I was later given the role of apprentice to learn and understand from the seniors of the field. Later, I changed my field of interest from content creation to Animatronics by joining this division in NatGeo.

It was not easy, you need to make time for everything in life, be it to enhance your skills or learn new skills.

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

The major challenges that I faced were:

  • Not enough connections in this field
  • Not knowing how to proceed in this field
  • Worried about ROI

With time you would understand that these challenges are common for any industry. In this scenario, I would say that I was fortunate enough to have industry contacts through organizations I worked for.
The easiest way to address these issues is by grabbing each and every opportunity that comes across you.

Where do you work now? Tell us about your role

At present I’m in the final year of my under graduation. I work in the national geographic animatronics division.

We develop research databases and prototypes which try to replicate animal behavior. We develop robots such as this

Robot spy gorilla infiltrates a wild gorilla troop 🕵️🦍 | Spy In The Wild  - BBC - YouTube

Which can be used to get more detailed data about an animal and how it reacts to various situations and scenarios.

This field of job requires skills such as product designing, Industrial sketching and most importantly patience.

I love this job because the data that we receive is way too exciting and surprising. We get to interact with them on a personal level. And most importantly the pride it comes with working at such a reputed company  

Basically, what is the concept of Animatronics?

The initial stage involves processes like obtaining video data from forest cameras and making a 3D model in software such as Blender or other simulation softwares. Then we try to map the movement of joints from actual video reference to the model developed. Then we move to the production phase where we create physical 3D models and try to replicate the motion by precise programming of the motors using harmonic drives and relays.

How does your work benefit society? 

My work provides the data which helps us understand how animals behave and provides us with the clues related to evolution. Our data is crucial for many Bio-engineers and biology related firms.

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

In the initial period of my work, I was involved in a project which involved working with “David Attenborough”. That was the most memorable experience I had at this job, meeting my childhood idol. 

Your advice to students based on your experience?

Grab each and every opportunity that comes across you. 

Never give up no matter what.

Never stop learning

Make space for personal life. 

Future Plans?

I want to keep working in the same field and make a significant impact in this field.