Doing a PhD after five years of working in your dream job requires a lot of motivation and the drive to be a part of breakthrough research, especially in the field of electric and autonomous vehicles.

Aditya Hegde, our next pathbreaker, PhD candidate in Aerospace Engineering at the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, works on collaborative control and guidance of multi-robot systems.

Aditya talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about transitioning to research after working as an Automotive Engineer on the development of algorithms to reduce the pollutants in the exhaust of IC engines.

For students, never shy away from exploring new opportunities even if requires you to take some hard decisions that go against the flow !

Aditya, Your background?

First things first. I would like to thank Shyam for making me introspect on my journey. I believe each one of you should do that even though it is difficult to find a few chosen words to describe you. Try to explore as much as possible, till you find something you really like doing for the rest of your life. I have always been interested in learning new things and am still a work in progress. I was born and grew up in New Delhi. My father was working at the Indian Council of Agricultural Research, first as an agricultural economist (academician) and then as an administrator (and an agricultural policy-specialist). We relocated many times within Delhi. I believe that the culturally rich environment in the government quarters I stayed at, was my motivation to start learning. The time I spent with my mother (a homemaker), attending the many fairs in Delhi (Dussehra and Durga Puja, trade, and book-fairs to name a few) was fruitful in piquing my curiosity about people and the many cultures that I was exposed to. My suggestion to students is to learn about people they are surrounded by, their culture, and their stories, starting with your parents. People have an irreplaceable impact on your ability to learn and appreciate the knowledge you will gain in your life (Don’t forget that they are the medium through which knowledge flows!). Given the environment I grew up in and my mother’s interest in arts and crafts, I picked up an interest in painting and paper modeling. I would like to add here, by saying that my parents were my first teachers. I learnt dedication and humility from my father (he hails from a small remote village near Jog Falls, Karnataka), and I attribute my curiosity and creativity to my mother.

My school’s (Bluebells School International) prioritization of extra-curricular and all-round development of students over a purely academic approach, further encouraged my interests and skills. I would like to attribute the introduction of cable TV in India in the mid-90s, and the subsequent access to Discovery Channel and the National Geographic Channel (a special mention to Cartoon Network), as the most impactful event in shaping my interest in machines (given that there was no internet, which was in its nascent stage in the 90s). This interest in machines perfectly stacked upon my interest in paper modeling, culminated in paper models of cars, airplanes, rockets, space shuttles, and accessories for my action figures – inspired by the ‘Swat Kats’ and ‘The Centurions’ series on Cartoon Network (90s’ kids will relate to what I am saying).

I opted for the Physics-Chemistry-Math-Computer Science (PCM-C) stream in eleventh grade, after understanding that the basic sciences are the foundation of machines (engineering), in middle-school. For students interested in automotive (mechanical/ mechatronics) engineering, I would like to emphasize that the math-physics duo is your bread and butter. You either love it or learn to love it!

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

I joined the bachelor’s program in mechanical engineering at the Delhi College of Engineering (now Delhi Technological University). During the final year of my bachelor’s degree, I applied to master’s programs at a few US universities. I got admitted to the master’s program in mechanical engineering at the University of Michigan (UMich), Ann Arbor. After graduation I joined Cummins Inc. in the US and worked for five years before joining the PhD program in Aerospace Engineering at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc.), Bangalore, where I am now.

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

Well, I’ll be honest. My interest in machines (cars and airplanes) led me to pursue mechanical engineering. Once you relate to something, you will read more about its history. In the next moment, you find yourself reading about people who struggled and made worthwhile contributions to that field. The people who motivated me were Henry Ford, Ferruccio Lamborghini (automotive), and the Wright brothers (Aeronautics). Social media was non-existent when my interest in this field developed, and the internet was not accessible. The Discovery and National Geographic channels were the only available sources of information/knowledge. 

Of course, like other kids, I was infatuated with race cars and followed Formula-1. This led me to pursue my bachelor’s in mechanical engineering at the Delhi College of Engineering, which had a team (Defianz Racing) that participated in the Formula Student competition, annually held in the UK. In my second year of study, I joined the team and worked on the design, analysis, and manufacturing of the suspension of the race car. I got an opportunity to attend the competition held at Silverstone, UK in 2008 (after a bout of ill-health), which furthered my interest in automobiles. It was then that I decided to apply to master’s programs abroad (after my second year). 

Another turning point was my selection of the control and systems specialization for my master’s degree. This was a detour from my initial interest in fluid dynamics, and the decision was based on peer advice and the exceptional control system course offerings at UMich. While at UMich, my experience in suspension dynamics helped me contribute to a research project on controlling the rolling motion and instability of vehicles. The control and systems engineering courses I took helped me get an internship and a full-time position at Cummins Inc. In my career, I have found that the subjects I have studied have complemented each other (maybe not immediately realizable) and have been useful in some way or another later. 

After working for five years at Cummins, I decided to move back to India and explore further interests, while I pursued a PhD at IISc. (which was on my mind for a long time). The decision was primarily driven by personal reasons and a sense of saturation after working for a long time. My current work still revolves around control and systems engineering, however, of robot teams. 

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

One thing that was clear to me after the second year of my bachelor’s degree was my interest in studying further. I attended campus placement interviews in the final year of my bachelor’s study, while I was applying to master’s programs in the US. I think having an alternative plan helped me relax and focus on my applications. After graduation, I continued with a master’s degree at UMich, where I wanted a balance of research and application-based engineering in my work. I started applying to internship positions after the first semester of study and got selected to one at Cummins Inc. after the first year. I knew that internships may lead to full-time positions, from my interaction with other students. So, I put in additional effort to interact and network with people at Cummins. However, I believe that it was the quality of my work in the three months of internship that got me the full-time offer (there is no substitute for hard work). 

After graduation I joined Cummins as an Aftertreatment Controls Engineer, where I worked on developing algorithms to control aftertreatment systems. Aftertreatment systems reduce the pollutants in the exhaust of IC engines and are vital in meeting government regulations and emission standards (like BS6). My role required an understanding of the physics and chemistry of catalytic reactions and gaseous flow. This understanding is used to design algorithms to control pollutants in the exhaust stream of diesel engines. I worked on programs for the larger engines in Cummins’ lineup (60 L and above). These engines required innovative changes to the software to control the aftertreatment system, and my work led to two patents.

After working as controls engineer for two years, I moved to another team within the company where I worked as a Senior Aftertreatment Integration Engineer, which was a systems-level role (assimilating and managing a complex system). This role gave me an opportunity to coordinate with multiple teams and manage the software delivery process, giving me customer visibility. Project/Program management roles like these give a good blend of technical and managerial experience and help one grow in an organization.

However, over time I realized my primary interest lay in research and I decided to interview for a PhD position at IISc. (India, because of personal reasons). While still working, I prepared for the interview over a span of two months, revising courses in the subject of control system theory and design. Preparing for exams/job change takes a lot of effort. It requires a lot of additional time, while still being ethical and devoting enough to work. I think preparing for the interview was a great learning experience for me, and it was very satisfying when I got selected for the PhD position.

How did you get your first break?

I applied to a few internships after my first year of master’s study. I interviewed for a few and was offered one by Cummins Inc. This was my first work experience and gave me a lot of exposure. I had a great manager, my work was well appreciated, and I was offered a full-time position with the same group that I interned with!

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

The biggest challenge was the availability of internships at that time (following the recession of 2008). There were only a few positions available, and a lot of competition for those. I interviewed for a few positions on the phone and in person (with my friends driving me to those). I did not get an offer during my summer break, during which I worked with my advisor at the university as a research associate. Thus, having a backup plan helped.

Another challenge was to relocate for my internship at Cummins to another state. However, a friend working at Cummins helped me find accommodation and introduced me to his friends at the company. Thus, building a network of friends and colleagues is of utmost importance.

Here, I would suggest to students that they latch on to any opportunity they get. In some circumstances, opportunities are hard to come by, and it is always better to pursue each of those and be able to decide amongst the options later. Full-time employment opportunities were a big concern at that time (after graduation), and I utilized the internship opportunity I got, to work hard and secure a full-time position.

Where do you work now? What problems do you solve?

I am doing my PhD in Aerospace Engineering at the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. I work on the collaborative control and guidance of multi-robot systems. Multi-robot teams can be used for load transportation, agricultural activities, disaster relief and warehouse management. It is an upcoming field, which has a lot of potential as the world becomes reliant on the autonomy of complex tasks and mobility. My work involves designing algorithms for the formation control of robots navigating unknown environments, using my knowledge of control and systems engineering. 

After five years of working, PhD life came as a surprise to me. There are no deadlines and no one to push me to deliver. There are no working days, and there are no holidays! It is only my motivation to learn and do something worthwhile that keeps me going. Most of my time is spent reading research papers (by academicians) and following the ongoing robotics research work in the industry. Of course, I also spend a lot of time reading about advances in automotive technology!

For the automotive engineering enthusiasts, I would like to talk about my work at Cummins (in the US) before starting my PhD. I was a Senior Aftertreatment Integration Engineer and worked with the software team to design, review and test the algorithms that were deployed on automobiles. The algorithms controlled the temperature and flow of exhaust gases, and spraying of urea on the catalyst, which converts nitrogen oxides to nitrogen. I also worked on fine-tuning the parameters in these algorithms using engine data. Further, I also coordinated with many teams in my organization and managed the software delivery to the customer.

The role required me to have a basic understanding of thermodynamics and fluid mechanics, and a thorough understanding of control theory and systems engineering (design and management of complex systems). My undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering had equipped me with the necessary knowledge to handle the first two. My master’s specialization in control and systems engineering made me a good fit for the role. Here, I would like to emphasize the importance of systems engineering in automotive systems, which are complex and handle a multitude of tasks in parallel – think about all the inter-dependent electronics in your car that are being controlled by a single computer. Students will find relevant literature about all these subjects online.

My days started with team and customer meetings to discuss the progress of work. I regularly looked at data from the field – test trucks running with new software and continuously saving data, for a performance evaluation of the algorithms. Using data, I identified truck failures and investigated the root cause for those. After identification of the root cause, I determined if the failures were genuine or were triggered due to software bugs. These were tricky to isolate and oftentimes I spent a few days investigating. The rest of my time was dedicated to designing algorithms in collaboration with the software team and reviewing algorithm performance using collected truck data and statistical measures. I regularly presented my findings to the management and customers.

How does your work benefit society? 

My first job has a special place in my life. Apart from the fact that I had a strong appreciation for the technology – it’s a green technology and built on top of the existing IC engine technology with minimal intrusion. The role gave me an opportunity to work on the control of such a complex physical system, with tangible and realizable results to show for the effort spent on algorithm design. To sum it up, it was an opportunity for me to do my bit in reducing the detrimental impact of technology on the environment using technology!

Aftertreatment systems reduce the gaseous pollutants in the exhaust of engines by using catalytic reactions. Thus, by working on this product for different world markets, I have contributed to environmental protection. 

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

One of the most memorable contributions I made to the product was the development of a strategy to reduce customer inconvenience. Government regulations require pollutants from the exhaust to be below certain thresholds, and that aftertreatment system failures (when pollutants rise significantly above threshold) are detected by the computer on the vehicle. In such scenarios the regulations require that the computer reduce the engine power to the vehicle, so that the operator/driver is forced to get the issue diagnosed and fixed from a service center. This reduction in engine power may be caused by several different failures and in turn causes customer inconvenience.  I worked with multiple experts and devised a strategy to reduce the impact of these failures on the customer, while still meeting government regulations. We estimated that this would reduce the downtime of a vehicle by at least twenty percent. This contribution is dear to me since the issue had been unaddressed for a long time and I identified the need to revise the existing strategy.

Your advice to students based on your experience?

My simple advice to students is that they should not shy away from exploring different things/avenues. Your interests may change with time and your decisions in life will be impacted by your environment and the situation (circumstantial and emotional) you are in. It is good to think about your options and always have a backup plan. However, you should also consider taking a leap of faith and going with the flow a few times. It is sometimes more beneficial to keep moving, instead of overthinking and stagnating at a place in life. You will probably take more time in reaching your destination, but in the process, you may learn something new, which you wouldn’t have if you would have stuck to your conservative plan. 

For students interested in automotive engineering – I would suggest they follow the ongoing work in electric mobility and autonomy. A few companies to follow are Tesla, Rivian, Nikola, Lucid Motors, Waymo etc. You may have different interests – fluid dynamics, solid mechanics, rigid body dynamics, control system design, but build your interests around the ongoing research in electric and autonomous vehicles. I would also like to emphasize the need for skill development, especially coding! 

Future Plans?

I am close to finishing my PhD and am planning to pursue post-doctoral research in robotics. My experience at Cummins Inc. has given me the maturity to handle PhD life and a research career. I intend to work in academia as a researcher, as I feel it gives me an option to balance my interests in research and teaching.