Space is still an unexplored and hostile environment for humans, because we still don’t know a lot more than what we know.

Shreya Santra, our next pathbreaker, Assistant Professor at the Space Robotics Laboratory, Tohoku University, works on planetary exploration robotics with the aim to solve various technological challenges related to design and operations of robots that can work well in extreme space environments.

Shreya talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about combining her love for space with the sophistication of robotic technologies to make space safer and more interesting for human exploration.

For students, if you want to let your imagination and work go beyond Earthly boundaries, space systems is an intriguing and inspiring field of study !

Shreya, tell us what were your early years like? 

I was born and brought up in the coal capital of India, Dhanbad, in Jharkhand. I studied at Mt. Carmel School and was always interested in Science subjects. I participated in National Science Olympiads and KVPY, representing my school at state and national level. In my free time, I liked to be in the library looking at beautiful night sky and deep space photos in encyclopaedias. I fell in love with Physics and Mathematics, and knew I would become a scientist in the future. My mother is a science teacher and my father is an engineer. I also have a younger brother. We are an average middle-class family. My parents always encouraged our interests and let me follow my dreams. 

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

I pursued BTech in Electrical and Electronics Engineering from National Institute of Technology, Jamshedpur. I went on to pursue my masters in Space Engineering from International Space University, France and later from Skoltech, Moscow. I also did my PhD in Space Robotics from Tohuku University.

What were the drivers that led you to such an offbeat, unconventional and unique career? 

I was greatly inspired by Dr. Kalpana Chawla. I keenly followed her first space flight, STS-87 in 1997 and wanted to follow her footsteps. I was extremely excited for her second flight STS-107, which unfortunately resulted in a fatal accident. 

Dr. A.P.J Abdul Kalam was another inspiring person whom I followed. I have read all his books and biographies and am greatly motivated by his journey. Through him I learnt, no matter what circumstances and hurdles we face, we should always chase our dreams and ambitions. 

My school science teachers played a major role in mentoring me and arousing my interests in science, helping me to excel in studies and training me for the Olympiads. 

As I watched the Space Shuttle Columbia STS-107 with Dr. Kalpana Chawla and crew onboard, shatter into pieces on my home TV screen, I had a strong urge of working in the space sector to engineer safe space systems. 

How did you pave your own career path in the field of Space Robotics?

I have received multiple scholarships and fellowships. I received the TATA Millennium Scholarship for my undergraduation at NIT.

During my undergraduation, I made sure to gain skills and knowledge that are required in Aerospace Engineering. There was very little guidance or information available in this field, therefore, I chalked out my own plan and enrolled in various online courses and workshops. Then I applied for an internship at the Indian Institute of Astrophysics, where I learnt about Astronomy and Aerospace, and did a project with a famous Indian scientist. 

My first internship was at the Indian Institute of Astrophysics, Bangalore where I worked on data processing to study the behaviour of the sun and its impact on space weather. I learnt Python and C++ while working on this project. 

While looking for universities specialising in space science and engineering, I came across ISU (International Space University). After some extensive research and reaching out to the ISU alumni network, I got to know about the illustrious history of ISU. Eminent personalities such as fiction writer Sir Arthur C Clarke and Chairman of X-Prize Foundation, Mr. Peter Diamandis were associated with ISU. The interdisciplinary aspect of ISU attracted me and I wanted to learn all about space. I realised that if space is my passion, then this is the place to be! I prepared an impressive application and statement of purpose for admissions into the MSS (Masters in Space Studies) program.

I also received an MSS scholarship for my first masters in space studies at the International Space University (ISU), that eased my burden of studying abroad. 

My second internship was arranged through ISU at the satellite manufacturing company, Luxspace, in Luxembourg, where I was responsible for designing the power system and learnt the cost analysis of the satellite’s manufacturing process.

While pursuing my masters at ISU, we went on a study tour to Moscow, where we visited all the space related institutes and memorials. I absolutely fell in love with Russia and their culture. Here, I came across this institute, Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology (Skoltech). This was a newly established initiative in partnership with MIT USA.

Before embarking on the next academic step, I wanted to gain some more research experience. Therefore, when I found a temporary visiting researcher position at PRL (Physical Research Laboratory), I applied for it. It was a good break, during which I did some basic research on space systems while I looked for a full-time masters in space technology.

I applied for the masters program in Space Systems Engineering (Skoltech) to equip me with the necessary engineering skills for building space systems. The admission process was very tough, with multiple challenging tasks, an entrance exam and an interview. The best thing about Skoltech is that they provide scholarships to everyone. During my 2nd Master’s degree, I did an internship at Samsung Research in Moscow, where I worked on designing an autonomous UAV for their warehouse management. In the process, I learnt about robotic design and operations. Additionally, I worked on high-altitude balloons to conduct near-space experiments as well as designed small satellite constellations for internet communications. Most of these projects were done in teams where each member worked on a specific sub-system and we defined the interfaces in such a way that all the sub-systems could perform together when combined into one system.

Though I was always aware that I wanted to do a PhD in some space related topic, only at Skoltech did I realize how interesting robotics is and hence tried to combine my love for space with the advantages of robotics. I started to look for Space Robotics courses and labs. Japan is a leader in robotics, including space robotics. Therefore, i applied to a university in Japan.

I received the MEXT Japanese Scholarship for PhD at Tohoku University, Japan.

You can read my application journey here.  

My PhD research was focused on multi-robot communication and coordination. As we accelerate towards planetary surface exploration, several landing missions are proposed for the coming decades to both the Moon and Mars. Multi-robot systems are now being extensively studied for surface exploration missions as they allow flexibility and affordable costs. They provide a promising alternative to single large rovers in performing high-level tasks. These small sized rovers are highly suitable for coverage of large areas. However, lack of coordinated algorithms for localization, navigation, path planning, computational power and tasks completion are currently limiting the widespread applications of such systems. Therefore, establishing and maintaining reliable communication networks to exchange information among these robots can lead to optimum coordination.

I also got the DAAD Research Grant for working at the German Aerospace Center (DLR) where I worked as a visiting PhD researcher. I conducted several experiments to verify my multi-robot communication models and their application in real-world scenarios for path planning. 

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

Challenge 1: I initially faced the challenge of pursuing a career in Aerospace and Astronomy, as I was told there is no scope in these fields. Instead, I went for the more generic Electrical and Electronics Engineering, as it had job prospects. 

Challenge 2: Moving abroad for studies was a bold step as I was getting away from my comfort zone and this brought with it a number of challenges, financially as well as the struggle of living alone in an unknown country. 

Tell us about your research in Space Robotics

I work as an Assistant Professor at the Space Robotics Lab in Tohoku University, Japan 

What problems do you solve? 

I work on planetary exploration robotics and try to solve the various technological challenges related to design and operations of robots that can work flawlessly in extreme space environments.

The near future space missions are planning to land humans on the Moon and enabling their stay there. However, it will be extremely difficult for humans to construct habitats on the lunar surface. This is where robots can be used to build habitats or to explore lunar caves, which are inaccessible to humans due to their size and safety.

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

Skills and knowledge of programming, space and robotics engineering, system engineering, logical and critical thinking for decision-making, are very important in my job. I have acquired these skills over a period of time, by taking relevant courses, doing hands-on projects and internships, and learning from experts and mentors. 

What’s a typical day like? 

A typical day in my life starts with a healthy breakfast and some physical exercises. I then register for my work in the laboratory, and begin with reading research papers to understand and be updated on the latest scientific advancements in space robotics. During the rest of the day, I work with my lab students on ongoing projects to develop planetary robots and debug the problems we face. I work about 8-9 hours a day and try to spend my evenings by relaxing or working on other volunteer projects for space outreach and education. 

What is it you love about this job? 

Every day is exciting in my job because I am extremely passionate about this field, and I try to come up with different solutions for the challenges that exist. I am always thinking about how to make space safer and more interesting for human exploration. Apart from my day job, I work with different organizations to popularize space studies among the younger generation, and I love it when these little curious minds come up with inquisitive questions. 

How does your work benefit society? 

Space studies is an inspiring field of study, where we can let our imagination and work go beyond the Earthly boundaries. Any advances in space science and technology lead to multiple leaps in humanity’s achievements. Whether it was the first satellite, or discovery of the exoplanets, or most recently, the landing of a rover on the Mars surface, all of these have created a positive impact by providing employment, introducing new technologies, unfolding new mysteries of the Universe and arousing curiosity among the younger generation. Space is boundless and it gives us a sense of unity when we work on something that will eventually get to space. 

Robotics can help to reach places where is it difficult for humans to go. Robots are the pre-cursor as they can explore and prepare a site in advance, thus reducing the risks and costs involved in the missions. Space is extremely hostile environment for humans, therefore, they need to wear special suits that often restrict their limb movements. Robots can be very useful to assist and do tasks with special manipulators that can be tele-operated by humans. 

Additionally, robots can also help in improving the crew dynamics and collaborate when needed, specially in cases of medical emergencies.

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

Some of the most memorable work that I often do is working with international teams on space related projects. These team sessions have taught me much more than what any textbook or Google can teach. I have learnt to be holistic and broad minded, tried to understand diverse perspectives, and cooperate with people from different backgrounds and cultures. Such environments always motivate me to give my best! 

Your advice to students based on your experience? 

Always believe in your dreams, no matter what the people around you say. If you do not see a path that you can follow, then create your own path. Work hard and give your best each time. Respect others’ work and take every opportunity to learn from others. 

Future Plans? 

I wish to continue working in the space sector as an academician and as an entrepreneur. I have a vision of spreading quality space and robotics education among the students of second and third tier cities of India. For this purpose, I am working with educational organizations to develop courses and workshops that will help me to reach out to more students. Additionally, I still harbour my dream of becoming an astronaut and going to space, which I am actively working on, by focusing on my fitness and giving my best in everything I do.