We know very little about our oceans and seas, or their significance in addressing global sustainability issues, thanks to the challenges that the hostile subsea environment poses to humans!

Jagadeesh Kadiyam, our next pathbreaker, PostDoc at IIT Palakkad, conducts research on intervention-class marine robots that perform autonomous underwater manipulation with the goal of eliminating human intervention during continuous underwater service.

Jagadeesh talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about taking “the road not taken”, and being fortunate to be part of various deep ocean research missions involving cyclone and tsunami early warning systems that paved the way for his career in Marine Robotics.

For students, the world has truly understood the genuine importance of oceans in dealing with climate change issues. For a better tomorrow, we need better oceans. For better oceans, we need professionals passionate about marine/ocean research.

Jagadeesh, can you take us back to your early years?

I was born and brought up in the city of destiny, Visakhapatnam. I come from a humble joint middle-class family and am the first person to complete graduation in my family. My father and Baba (paternal uncle) are into business, and support our family. My mother and aunt are homemakers. I completed my schooling and graduation from Visakhapatnam. Besides my parents, Baba is my God-given parent and is my support system and the reason for what I am today. He stood by me in the most minor and most significant decisions I have taken. 

Though an above-average student until grade VII, I was inquisitive about the subjects I read. This helped me secure the top position in my school in the Xth standard board examinations. I have always involved myself in my school and college extracurricular activities. My cheerful attitude and overall participation in co-curricular activities helped me gain popularity among my peers. My teachers also supported me at any annual school and college events that I helmed as a student leader. I was elected as a student president at the end of our sixth semester during my graduation.

What did you do for graduation/post-graduation?

During my higher secondary grade, I decided to pursue Mechanical Engineering for my Bachelor’ degree. I  consistently made it to the top 1% of my class throughout the four years. After a brief stint in a few research organizations, I opted for a direct PhD (without a Masters’) from IIT Indore in Robotics and Control. Currently, I am a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at IPTIF – IIT Palakkad Technology IHub Foundation, Palakkad, India.

Jagadeesh, what drove you to take up such an offbeat, unconventional and uncommon career?

Though my parents and Baba never preached a single word to me on leading my life, they showed me an exemplary existence. They are the key influencers of my life. Baba has strived to uplift our family status with his best efforts. He could not do his graduation due to our family circumstances during his time. So, he tried to impart the importance of education to me, my cousins, and a few other students in and around our household. So he did his bit of service by financially supporting the people around him and encouraging them to educate themselves. Somehow, growing up, looking up to him helped me break the stereotypical thought process. I was blessed with a supportive family, great teachers and an incredible peer group. 

I have always had high regard for researchers and teachers from a young age. Maybe this was due to the influence of people I met, the programs I participated in, or the books I read. Researchers innovate, and teachers propagate that very innovation to the future generation. In one’s life, events/people influence daily habits (without judging); some drive us, some teach us and some stay with us in everything we do. Apart from studies, I have tried my best to spend equal time on extracurricular activities such as extempore and scientific/ philosophical debates. These activities had a lot of influence on my aspirations to be a researcher. The last two decades gave way for space and nuclear research innovations. I grew up learning the hype and propaganda of different countries about their own space and nuclear research. As a student (probably every student), my aspirations were that India should become a part of those league of nations. 

After my graduation, I had a responsibility to support my family. Simultaneously, I wanted to pursue a research career. My intent possibly paved the way to join a research group that focuses mainly on underwater marine/naval research. As my aspirations were into space or nuclear research, I thought I would find an opportunity sooner or later. But destiny had its own plans; my job profile required me to participate in field trials, wind tunnel tests and other experiments along with computational analysis. The job was challenging, and I enjoyed it to the core and learned a tonne during the journey. This experience slowly turned my vision towards marine robotics research. 

With a long coastline of 7500km, India has the potential to be a winner in marine research. It has picked up its pace recently, though there is still a long way to go. As a personal anecdote, I would jovially say to my peers, “If space, nuclear and marine research were siblings, marine research is an abandoned child until recently”. The world has truly understood its genuine importance in post-climate change issues. The Earth is dependent on the ocean phenomenon, yet we know little about it. In this context, I would like to share a vision, “For a better tomorrow, we need better oceans. For better oceans, we have to generate pioneers in marine/ocean research.”

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

My career had a bunch of surprises due to the conscious choices I have made from the opportunities I had. After graduation, I had offers from a few organizations with a decent paycheck. Simultaneously, I had a few funded options from abroad to pursue a Masters’ degree. However, my conscious intent of doing research in India made me opt for a research fellowship at Defense Research and Development Organization. I joined the Autonomous Underwater Vehicle research group at Naval Science and Technological Laboratory (NSTL), Visakhapatnam, as a Junior Research Fellow. The group’s core focus is on the technology demonstration of a defense-class AUV (autonomous underwater vehicle). The AUV weighs around 1700kg and is capable of naval missions such as underwater minesweeping, mine laying, surveillance and can operate up to depths of 300 – 500m.

I worked on the mechanical design of a Variable Buoyancy System to enable efficient propulsion and noiseless operation to improve the vehicle stealth by reducing the thruster operation period. I was actively involved in mechanical drafting for prototype development. I also implemented a systems engineering approach to design and analyze other functional marine systems such as hydrofoils. I have participated in towing tank experiments and lake trials to gather data from these systems to understand their performance characteristics in variable operating conditions. These hands-on experiences led to my foray into the world of marine robotics. They paved the way to land my next role as a Scientist at the National Institute of Ocean Technology (NIOT) Chennai, where I proactively designed and developed marine robots. Simultaneously, I was fortunate to be part of various deep ocean research missions to aid the cyclone and tsunami early warning systems by deploying and maintaining meteorological and oceanographic moorings. Moorings have a floating device on the water surface anchored to the bed using ropes or cables. The cables or ropes are mounted with observing sensory equipment up to varied depths based on data sampling requirements. The deep-sea going experience on the research vessels is one of its own kind. The team’s collective efforts lead to a successful mission. Typical oceanic research cruises can vary anywhere between 10 days to as long as 45 days. Along the way, the ship halts at different pre-decided locations as per the schedule of the research activities planned. The information researchers gather from this equipment serves as the science behind essential decisions about natural processes. Few research cruises are specifically intended to deploy additional systems such as marine robots for spatiotemporal observations.

This experience laid the foundation for me to pursue higher education and delve deeper into marine robotics as a core research activity. Hence, after eight long years of a full-time job, I decided to quit my job and start formal doctoral research. My family and close friends perceived leaving the job as a risk and suggested refraining from taking such a bold step. At that time, I had funded opportunities from two IITs in India and one from abroad. I opted for a direct PhD (without a Masters’ degree) from IIT Indore, considering the research profile of my supervisor Dr Santhakumar Mohan. Later during my second year, Dr Devendra Deshmukh took over as my administrative supervisor. Their constant support has helped me embrace the arduous journey of doctoral research.

Moreover, my PhD funding was a part of an Indo-Korean Collaborative research fellowship grant which required frequent interactions and annual research visits to South Korea. The core focus of the Indo-Korean Collaborative research is to design, develop and control a service-class underwater robot, with its application in various domains such as underwater inspection, cutting/welding operations, position keeping, renewable energy resources exploration and intervention missions. This concept implements a reduced number of thrusters to reduce the form drag and power consumption without compromising the mission capabilities, thus improving the autonomy/endurance. My exposure to working on real-world problems at NIOT helped me understand the dynamics, guidance, navigation and nonlinear control issues of marine vehicles. As a part of my doctoral research work, I have designed and developed two full-scale marine robot prototypes and tested them. Recently, I have been awarded the prestigious ‘IEI Young Engineers Award 2020-21’ in Marine Engineering discipline from The Institution of Engineers (India) for efforts in marine technology.

How did you get your first break? 

Choosing Mechanical engineering for my Bachelor’s degree probably would be the first turning point. Not opting the opportunities from other engineering branches like Computer Science and Electronics was not easy due to family and peer pressure. However, my Baba supported me to explore my decision. Later after my graduation, I stood at a similar junction. I chose to walk along “the road not taken” by opting for the research fellowship at DRDO, which later paved a path to what I am today!

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

As an individual, I try to put my best efforts into embracing the difficulties that come my way. My work demands a lot of attention in developing a subsystem or a system. Unlike aerial or terrestrial robots, the probability of losing an underwater robot is comparatively higher due to the limited knowledge of the subsurface environment. I still remember my first sea trial of one of our in-house vehicles. Though we had conducted numerous tests, I was reluctant for an early sea trial, as our initial tests were in a controlled environment. I was worried about the vehicle’s performance in deep sea. However, thanks to our group head of the programme, Dr R Venkatesan, a brilliant administrator and a great taskmaster, he gave the go-ahead for the test, believing our efforts from earlier trials. I admire his efforts, and considering his age, I still am surprised by the sheer hard work he puts in for the group. The vehicle performed as required and was retrieved successfully. That episode helped me improve my confidence levels and taught me two things. First, “be prepared for the challenge from day one, because you can never predict the things which are out of your control!” Prior preparation and readiness might help reduce the probability of failure. Second, “embrace the consequences once the decision is made!” The consequences may be a success or a failure. 

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

I have worked on the “Performance investigations of observation-class and service-class marine robots” during my doctoral research at IIT Indore. As a part of my PostDoc at IIT Palakkad, recently, I have extended my research to intervention-class marine robots to perform autonomous underwater manipulation. My work mainly focuses on reducing human fatigue or eliminating human intervention during continuous underwater service. I also work on fault diagnosis of subsystems to continue the underwater tasks without aborting the mission and minimizing the probability of losing the vehicle in the ocean during operation. 

What are the skills needed, and what is a typical day like?

My job demands knowledge of coding, mechanics, fluid dynamics, control aspects and hands-on skills in handling specialized mechanical and electrical equipment. A typical day of mine is similar to that of most of the researchers. It involves reading contemporary research work, drafting articles, and preparing proposals to acquire research grants. My specific work details include design synthesis and analysis, performance investigations on the existing methodologies and developing new methods for the foolproof operation of the robots underwater. 

Working with marine robots is one of the most challenging tasks. I relish each moment of transforming concepts from a drawing board to things in reality. It gives immense satisfaction in designing and developing systems that work in a hostile environment like oceans. Every day awaits a new surprise and a possibility to learn something new!

How does your work benefits society? 

My work mainly focuses on developing robots for in-situ ocean observations and service operations on a broader scale. Oil and natural gas industries generally use service class marine robots for various underwater structures inspection, manipulation activities, and bathymetry surveys. Similarly, these systems are beneficial for defence-based surveillance activities. Deep-sea mining of polymetallic nodules has gained a lot of attention worldwide to exploit the untapped potential of large-scale energy reserves in the deep sea. India has also joined this bandwagon to develop this advanced technology to exploit the vast resources in the Indian Ocean region. In this context, creating sustainable and affordable marine systems is vital to India. Most equipment is imported, which incurs enormous costs for procurement and operation. Thus, we need economically affordable marine systems to deliver similar or better performance in the Indian context.

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

I have been a part of various research cruises on Indian and Foreign research vessels to deploy and recover various unmanned marine equipment. On a few cruises, we had to face the brunt of hostile ocean weather during cyclones. Despite the challenges we face, our team does its best to successfully deploy and retrieve the equipment. 

During one of such cruises, we received information about an unfortunate crash of Coast Guard Dornier aircraft. At that time, we were conducting research operations in the northern Bay of Bengal region. We were requested to abandon the ongoing activities and immediately participate in the Search and Rescue operation. Our vessel was equipped with seabed mapping equipment. We reached the possible crash location as informed by the Coast guard and carried out the bathymetric survey operation. 

Similarly, during one of my research collaboration visits, a research issue that our counterparts did not recognize was identified by us during the first meeting. It helped improve the system capabilities and reduced the complexity of design and operation. The same has been implemented permanently after that. It was one of the memorable moments I will cherish for a long time.

Your advice to students based on your experience?

I humbly believe experiences and perceptions are relative, and there is no right or wrong in this universe. So every piece of advice made and taken are also relative. Life is simple! Make a choice! Experience and embrace happiness and sorrow or success and failure that you derive from your preferences! Move on to the next episode and repeat!

Future Plans?

Apart from active research, I have supported student teams to attend national and international competitions in marine robotics since 2013. To expand, I started supporting a startup that can help promote marine technology to students from the school to college level. Marine robotics is still nascent in India and started picking just recently. I have observed a steady rise in the student community interest in marine technology. My vision is to see more students become pioneers in this field from India and provide sustainable solutions towards better oceans for tomorrow!