As mass transit systems adopt autonomous technologies, transportation systems need to be designed in adherence to principles of safety engineering.

Abhimanyu Tonk, our next pathbreaker, is Railways Safety Engineer at RAILENIUM, a Technological Research Institute in France that works with the Railways industry to develop state-of-the-art technologies.

Abhimanyu talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about the significance of safety assurance in cutting edge technologies (driverless) that are replacing traditional transportation systems (with a driver).

For students, as we transition into a new age governed by autonomous technologies, a thorough knowledge of safety engineering and its underlying principles is required.

Abhimanyu, can you tell us about your background?

I was born and brought up in Hisar, Haryana. My mother is a mathematician and my father worked for ONGC throughout his career. Thanks to them, I am what I am today. They have a great fondness for academics and education which I believe also got passed onto me. I was always very fond of reading and knowing how stuff works.  Apart from this, my parents introduced me to sports such as swimming, when I was an infant, which enabled me to explore other sports such as cricket, football, volleyball, running at a very young age. Due to the nature of his job, my father lived pan-India and this gave me another opportunity to visit different parts of the country and later motivated me to move to Chandigarh for preparation of competitive exams. Then I lived in Noida, spent a very short period of my life doing some basic military Training at OTA Gaya, Dehradun before finally moving to France. I have always liked to travel, meet new people, and make friends. This has always helped me to move around the world. 

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

I did my BTech in Electronics and Instrumentation engineering from Amity University, Noida wherein I was introduced to the basics of Engineering. Subsequently, based on the guidance of my father, I chose to pursue an MTech in Health, Safety and Environment at UPES, Dehradun. During my master’s I got an opportunity to spend four months as an exchange student in France, which later played a vital role in my decision to move abroad for higher education. Towards the end of my master’s degree, I had developed keen interest in safety related engineering activities during design of transportation systems. In order to pursue this interest, I enrolled for an Advanced Masters course in Safety Engineering at INSA Toulouse, France.

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

The key influences that led me to this career were my interest in this domain, followed by the support from my family and friends.

The people in my life who I consider as my “mentors” are my parents, my mentor (master’s degree mentor in Toulouse) and my friends at my current job.

I was introduced to safety as an engineering domain during my internships at ONGC where we worked with HSE (Health, Safety & Environment) engineers in the Oil & Gas operations. That is when I realized the scope of activities that fall under this domain, which led me to my MTech at UPES, Dehradun.

At one point of time, after my MTech, though I knew what I wanted to do, I had no knowledge if such a domain existed at all. At that time, the infamous plane crashes (Boeing 777 Max, MH 470, etc.) started happening and the domain itself came into focus. So when I searched, I found the requisite course, and fortunately, it was in France again, the only county I had ever lived in outside of India.

The major turning points for me were at the end of my BTech and MTech when I chose to pursue further education each time instead of following the traditional “find a job” culture, even though I took up a job for a very short time in between my MTech and my moving to France. And the other turning point would be trying something new such as a “semester exchange” program in a foreign country.

Tell us about your career path

During my MTech, I did an internship at Shapoorji Pallonji (SP) which was an integral part of my Mtech degree (UPES). During my time at SP, I experienced how the HSE activities unfold themselves at the ground level.

After my MTech at UPES, I worked with Suez India Pvt Ltd as a HSE Engineer for 3 months. By this time I had already selected the direction I wanted to take, which was in the domain of Safety Engineering during design of systems rather than during operations.

After deciding the domain that I wanted to pursue as a career, the first step was to decide where I could be educated in this domain. I did a thorough search of colleges, prepared a list and later shortlisted the courses based on all factors (country, fees, interest, etc.) 

My admission to INSA Toulouse was purely based on my application, interview and other formalities. There was no scholarship for this Advanced Masters course. I took my initial French courses during my time at INSA, which were provided as a part of my Masters.

The pedagogy of the Safety Engineering course at INSA Toulouse is quite efficient and has been developed keeping in mind the needs of the industry. The course tries to introduce students to safety engineering related activities in various industries such as chemical, nuclear, pharmaceutical, process, automotive, railways, aerospace, etc. Thus, the course itself is multidisciplinary in nature. Also, we had several lectures/ discussions with working professionals. As per my understanding, the basics of Safety Engineering remain the same throughout various industries, and I was able to acquire these basics at INSA. Today, based on my understanding and continuous reading of the state of the art technologies, I try to develop and implement my knowledge in the realm of advanced autonomous technologies in the railway domain.

I also did a 6 months internship with an autonomous vehicle manufacturer in France – EasyMile SAS, as Systems Safety Engineer. The main objective was to find the safety requirements and manage the safety of an autonomous vehicle. After completing my internship, I joined a technological research institute working towards developing the Autonomous Train, where I continue to work and assure the safety of future autonomous technologies. I also look forward to pursuing a PhD in the same domain in the future.

How did you get your first break?

I got my first break by contacting my current manager through his email (available online) and by sharing my interest for the domain. Later on, when he had a job for me, he invited me for an interview.

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

Challenge 1: Moving to a different country

Moving abroad is not an easy task as you face a lot of challenges like language, cultural shock etc . In my opinion, the only way to address these challenges is by staying positive, being patient, asking for help whenever required and keep moving forward.

Challenge 2: COVID

The Covid period was a great challenge for me, because I lost my internship and then found a new one. Again, just stay positive, precautious and get vaccinated I guess 😊 

Where do you work now? Tell us about your role as Safety Engineer

I work at RAILENIUM, a Technological Research Institute (France) as a Safety Engineer. The institute works with the Railways industry to develop state-of-the-art technologies.

What problems do you solve?

In the case of autonomous systems, the removal of drivers from transportation systems creates a problem of safety assurance. Infact, in the traditional systems the driver is always justified as a safety measure for several risks that come from the external environment. But now with driverless cars as well as trains, we need to justify their safety. This is the problem I am trying to solve.

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

The knowledge of safety engineering and its underlying techniques is required, as well as a basic understanding of engineering principles (electronics, control systems, automation, etc.), and an interest in working in research & development.

What’s a typical day like?

A typical workday for me includes lots of technical reading and writing. It is mostly in front of the screen with involves some visits. Also depending on our research, you get to publish it in conferences across the globe and visit beautiful new countries and meet new people.

What is it you love about this job?

For me the most interesting part is that I work in the domain which I always aspired to, and worked hard for.  So, I never take it as a job, and not only that, working as an engineer- researcher, I always work on the latest technologies.

How does your work benefit society? 

As a safety engineer my job is to ensure that all technologies that are created for society are safe. Especially in case of trains, the risk is higher as it is a mass transportation system.

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

I think all my work is memorable for me because for every project we need to spend lots of time researching what exists and what does not, and how we can create new solutions. And at the same time, our work will always be based on our previous work, and so everything is quite memorable.

Your advice to students based on your experience?

My advice to the students will be to try new things, new activities all the time. One should not restrict oneself just to a specific domain. Continue exploring, find what you love, do what you love and continue exploring! Also, try to learn new languages, it’s a delight to communicate with people from different cultures.

Future Plans?

I think my personal goal is to always keep improving. I want to show myself that there are no limits if we don’t define them. I have regained my peculiar childhood interest in sports. So, I am training for a marathon at this moment which I will participate in April 2022. I also want to participate in long distance triathlons such as half and full ironman which I have set as an objective for 2023 and 2024.