Industrial Robots are boosting productivity through automation by co-existing with humans, and eliminating the need to deploy manpower for mundane work. 

Govind Aadhitya Rajagopalan, our next pathbreaker, Deputy Manager, R&D at Schneider Electric India Pvt. Ltd., designs Special Purpose Automation solutions (Machinery and Digital Solutions) to assist the manufacturing plant in producing high-quality products that drive the world towards Sustainable Energy.

Govind talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about his bonding with humanoids and legged robots, and being part of a team that designed and developed a bipedal robot for the RoboGames2017 event held in California and winning the Penalty Kick event.

For students, challenges shouldn’t deter you, roadblocks and problems are the indicators that you are on the right path !

Govind, what were your growing up years like?

I was born and brought up in Chennai, India. I grew up in a typical middle-class household being the only child. I am gifted with parents who have given me the freedom to explore and identify what I like from an early age. 

When I look back at different points in my life, my ambition has kept changing, refining and evolving. My first ambition was to become a ‘Detective’. This was way back in the 4th grade when I was amazed by the anime, Detective Conan. This was mainly due to its roots in logical thinking. During grade 7, I developed a strong attachment to science, which shaped my ambition to become a ‘Scientist’. Just like any routine kid from a middle-class family back in 2011, because of my inclination toward science, my parents put me through rigorous coaching for the IIT-JEE entrance exam. Later, when it came to selecting my majors for the 11th and 12th grades, I realized there were 2 potential streams with Biology or Computer Science majors. Since I resonated more with coding than with biological terms, I decided to pursue a Computer Science major (Math, Physics, Chemistry, Computer Science). Thanks to my teachers during this phase, I understood what engineering is and what engineers do, which was in some ways very similar to what scientists do, but in an applied science field. So, my ambition now evolved to aspiring to become an ‘Engineer’.

By nature, I’m an introvert and so my social circle was always small, from my neighbourhood friends to classmates. My hobbies include playing outdoor games such as Cricket, Football, Badminton and indoor games like Carrom, Chess etc. 

What did you do for graduation/post-graduation?

As I told you earlier, once I made up my mind to pursue engineering, I had the daunting task of selecting the college and the major. Fortunately or unfortunately, I was not able to crack the IIT-JEE, but was able to secure a merit seat at SRM University (SRM Institute of Science Technology). When I went there for counselling, I wanted to enrol in Mechanical Engineering. But after a careful review of my interests and the syllabus of the departments, I ended up choosing the Mechatronics Engineering major.  

What were some of the influences that led you on such an offbeat, unconventional and cool career path?

The 4 years in my undergraduate course and life at SRM had a major influence on my decision of taking up the field of Robotics. Honestly, it was the feeling of accomplishment that I got on seeing one of my creations come to life, that drove me deep into the field. That feeling cannot be expressed in words, you’ll have to experience it to know it. I would like to thank my department faculty Mr Joe Johnson, through whom I got the first taste of this feeling. Once I got that drive, I started working on projects as a hobby. Though most of my learning was from the internet, the itch to find the details of how things work the way they do, propelled me to dive deep into things I worked on. This gave me a competitive edge while applying for a position in the Humanoid Student Research club at our university, SRM Team Humanoid (SRMTH). 

After joining SRMTH, I got exposed to many avenues of robotics like Circuit Design, Machine Vision, Control Systems etc. of which Machine Vision and Control Systems excited me the most. Being from a Mechatronics background, I also volunteered to help with the mechanical manufacturing and assembly process as well. During my 3 years at SRMTH, we attempted many different projects ranging from pure research to assistive applications. Being with people of the same mindset, we were inspired by each other’s work and treated any and every roadblock as a learning opportunity. With every project we attempted, we aspired to go a step further to find current research and technologies and incorporate them into our solution. With every project we developed, the team and the individuals evolved because of the introduction of some better practices like Robot Operating System (ROS) for inter-process communication, a few elementary object tracking methodologies for Computer Vision etc. Between doing projects and research for fun, I never realized my bonding with the niche of legged robotics.

How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Tell us about your career path.

My first internship was at Grace Infrastructure Pvt. Ltd., a company producing nuts of different shapes and sizes via cold forging, during the end of my third year of college. The objective of the internship was to know how industries functioned, their internal structure, processes and machinery. At the end of the two-month-long internship, I was able to familiarize myself with the workings of CNC Milling, Spark EDM, wire EDM machines and some quality inspection setups like CMM, first-hand. Apart from that, I also served as a part of the quality assurance team inspecting the finished products for defects.

Subsequently, towards the next semester break, I got to know about the Technology Group at LV Prasad Eye Institute called Srujana (Hyderabad). I worked on multiple projects to enhance the portability of eye care equipment to increase the availability of healthcare to all. I was offered a 1-month internship which was then extended to 3 months as I was able to show significant progress in the project that I was working on. This was a concept of topography mapping of the cornea where I developed the mathematical model for the diffuser cone and the algorithm for mapping the topography. This opportunity gave me a chance to interact with top eye surgeons and understand their difficulties in work and propose some ideas to adapt. This program was also in conjunction with the MIT Media lab’s innovation campaign for health care. During this time, I also worked on my undergraduate thesis on Decentralised Navigation of Autonomous Vehicles which aimed at managing navigation at intersections in a decentralised manner. I decided to pursue this thesis to get exposure in the field of Non-Linear Control and Optimisation. 

My next experience was as an Apprentice at Wabco India Pvt. Ltd., Chennai after my final undergraduate semester. I was offered a role in the Production Planning Department for Dual Diaphragm Spring Brake Actuator. The role demanded a complete understanding of the product, its manufacturing process and the supply chain. During the 5 months, I worked on Demand Forecasting based on data and Variance Analysis to optimize the product mix. This experience played a crucial part in understanding the supply chain process material flow in an industrial setting.

Towards the end of September 2018, I had a job offer from Larsen and Toubro Electrical and Automation business based on my on-campus interview during my 7th semester. Though the offer was a delayed one, it was a perfect fit for someone from a Mechatronics background. The job role offered to me was that of a Shop Floor Automation Engineer. I started as a Graduate Trainee and got absorbed as a full-time Senior Engineer. The job role included and was not limited just to conceptualization, but all the way to commissioning of Special Purpose Machines (SPMs) for shop floor automation. This was a huge opportunity for me considering the exposure I would get in the field of Automation.

Later, when the Electrical & Automation division was sold to Schneider Electric India Pvt. Ltd, I was assigned the role of Deputy Manager in the R&D department for Automation. This new role came with the responsibility of not only executing the projects but also justifying the business cases for each. This demanded some knowledge in the field of Industrial Engineering, Quality Assurance, and managerial skills to handle Cross-Functional teams across all levels of the organization.

During the past 3+ years at Electrical & Automation, I’ve worked with Industrial robots, and created concepts for integrated test setups, digitization projects etc, alongside refining our thesis and publishing more research papers at conferences for Multi-Robot Navigation.

Though my actual interest was in the field of legged robots or robotics in general, I didn’t want to write off Automation before even trying it. So I decided to give it a go when I had the opportunity to do so. Being in the field for 3+ years, I’ve gained much-needed exposure to corporate and professional life. This opportunity also gave me exposure to the viewpoint of the end customer of how robotics is perceived, how automation is received on the shop floor and the kind of problems people turn towards for automation. I believe this is much-required information with regards to planning the development of any product and identifying the target customers. 

How did you get your first break?

Being in the early stages of building my career, I should say I haven’t had my first break yet, which can lead to me to something huge.

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

I strongly believe in the fact that roadblocks and problems are the indicators that we are on the right path. A path without any challenges will never give you enough exposure and the opportunity to grow. 

It is common to face challenges and roadblocks when doing something new. For instance, when working on one of my projects, Self Balancing Robot, for the first time, I came into contact with Control Systems. Concepts like PID (Proportional Integral and Derivative) Controller, Kalman filtering, Data fusion etc. were Greek and Latin to me and I was overwhelmed when I came across these concepts at first. But, it is important to acknowledge that you are not aware of something in front of you and you should not hesitate to ask for help from experts (In my case, a few seniors and faculty of my department). I treated this as an opportunity to learn something that I didn’t know before. This applies to our work as well. It is ok to not know things, everyone cannot know everything and when required you have to ask for help. Even if you feel it makes you vulnerable on competitive grounds, it is important to step down, learn and start over from the last checkpoint. 

Being a person from a STEM background, management and finance were alien to me. One huge problem I faced was in filing taxes during the financial year ending. This is a huge thing because as a citizen we must file taxes. I was determined to file my taxes right from year one. So, I insisted my parents allow me to file their taxes. And to my surprise, I was able to grasp the concept of deductions, clauses etc. within 2-3 filings. Eventually, right from that year, I started filing my taxes. 

Whatever the problem may be, if you have an open mind, willingness to listen, grit and some confidence, you can overcome them without any second thoughts. Just like people say, ‘Trust the process, results will fall in place’, trust the process of learning, the problem will only be a stepping stone.

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

I currently work at Schneider Electric India Pvt. Ltd. as a Deputy Manager with a major responsibility of designing Special Purpose Automation solutions (Machinery and Digital Solutions) to assist our manufacturing plant in producing high-quality products that drive the world towards Sustainable Energy.

What are the skills needed for your role?

I handle machine design using CAD software, Control Elements programming like PLCs, HMIs  (Human Machine Interface) etc. for which we use Delta’s software and hardware, software development edge control devices using LabVIEW, Robot Programming using OEM recommended software and Database management using MS SQL. Though I had a fundamental understanding of all the mentioned skills after completing my undergrad, I had to learn different things on the fly while on the job. The one thing that helped me during the journey was to know and recognize situations in which I wanted help and ask for it from seniors.

What’s a typical day at work like?

My day at the office is never routine. Since I work on multiple projects which are in different stages, I get to do work like organizing cross-functional team meetings for concept discussions, programming PLCs, HMIs, software interface designing, documentation etc. Apart from this, my role also includes supporting machine breakdowns. Tools like Daily Work Management, 7QC tools, Why-why analysis etc. help me a lot to get through my workday. And this is the fact I love about my current role. Every day is a new day with new challenges and a new outlook.

How does your work benefit society? 

My current company aims to provide sustainable energy to all people, and my role in the company ensures that this demand is met without increasing the manpower deployed for mundane work. 

My part-time research work helps me realise the vision of humans and robots co-existing in the same world and doing all tasks together as well as improving human health with the help of assistive robotics.

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

It is hard to single out a specific work, as every work has contributed equally to my growth. But, I’d mention one event that brought our team SRMTH its recognition, the RoboGames 2017 held in Pleasanton, California. This was the breakthrough event for the whole team as we were the only team from India and also managed to get home 1-bronze, 2-silvers and 1-gold medal at various events.

RoboGames is a global event where bipedal robots (a type of humanoid robot which mimics a human being and can be programmed to perform some tasks as required) enthusiasts from all over the world participate. There were multiple events, from Biped Race and Sumo Wrestling to freestyle events. We started the preparation for the event well in advance. We had a plan of building our custom mini humanoid robot based on the Darwin OP-3 robot, so we started a couple of months before the event. We had the design prepared in a week and started searching for manufacturing facilities in Chennai.

The challenge here was the material. We had selected an Aluminium sheet that was 3mm thick and wanted to get it manufactured via Laser Cutting which was a difficult process owing to the reflectivity of Aluminium. After some door to door searches for a couple of days in the industrial estate in Chennai, we found a facility that was ready to help us out. Since we told them the quantum of the project, they even attended to our work on priority and helped us finish the manufacturing within 3 days. Meanwhile, we had received the servo motors that were ordered for the project. 

With around 5 weeks in hand, we started the assembly process and the electronics side of the project in parallel. With 4 weeks in hand, we started the core control and coding of the robots. We targeted a few events strategically, and shortlisted the events we wanted to be a part of. With 2 weeks to go, though we had considerable work done, things still seemed a long way away. One of the events that I was concentrating on was the Penalty Kick event as I was a part of the Computer Vision Team and this was our core event. The objective of the event was to dribble a ball through a set of obstacles which are colour marked, though the objects were not pre-defined and shoot at an open goal using only onboard camera(s). The other event that I was personally excited about was the free style event. As the name suggests, the participating team is free to perform anything within a stipulated time. We had decided to perform “Shadowing” where the robot would move exactly as the person controlling it through a standalone camera (Inspired by movie ‘Real Steel’). Though the last 3 weeks before the competition were sleepless for most of us, it made us feel more like family than friends. Having each other’s back and supporting one another, we could not have asked for anything more in a team. 

Though I was not able to attend the event in person; I was still very anxious. Though I was physically in India, my mind was with the team. With multiple events spread out across the 2 days of the event, we were all set to get up there. At the end of day 1 when the rest of the team from India asked for an update, we got the first golden words, “We finished second in the Biped Race event and third in Sumo Wrestling”. They also told us we had Penalty Kick and Freestyle scheduled the next day. The next day, since I had my classes starting at 8 am, I couldn’t get any updates. During the class, I received a facebook notification intimating that SRM Team Humanoid is going Live. The moment the class concluded, I went and opened the WhatsApp group that was flooded with notifications. I was stunned to see we secured the winning spot in Penalty Kick and Runners in Freestyle. Then I go on to Facebook to see the moment. The feeling of seeing our Indian Flag flying in a foreign land because of our work, really can’t be put into words.

This definitely will be THE best moment that I would hold on to for a very long time.

The moment:

The Robots: 

Your advice to students based on your experience?

To anyone interested in robotics, my first advice would be “Don’t be afraid to test the waters”. Robotics is a huge field by itself, so unless you test the waters, you will not know which subfield you will fit into.

My advice to students, in general, would be, You don’t need to be embarrassed to make mistakes, without them you won’t learn. This fear of embarrassment will eat your precious time. Every failure is feedback for improvement. The more you fail, the more refined your approach becomes.

Future Plans?

I intend to pursue a career in the research of legged robotics for which I feel I’ll need a more formal exposure to the topic from experts and a proper exposure to formal research. Hence, I’ll be pursuing a Master’s Degree starting Fall’22 with a specialization in Control, Perception, and Navigation and hope to continue my academic research with a PhD in the future and ultimately would be targeting to work with the big impact companies in the legged robotics domain like Boston Dynamics, ANYbotics, Agile Robotics etc.