Surgical Robots are helping surgeons around the world treat patients through assisted surgeries that are minimally invasive (MIS) or non-invasive.

Ranjan Kumar Mishra, our next pathbreaker, works as a Roboticist at Medtronic Surgical Robotics (CT, USA), with a main focus on bringing out surgical robot systems that can not only provide dexterity and flexibility during surgery but also help surgeons target precise locations.

Ranjan talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about being involved in the field of medical robotics for more than 22 years including his stints at BARC and DRDO which were the foundations of his career.

For students, identify your inner desires and try to find a societal cause that can benefit with it. Every work has a direct or indirect effect on society.

Ranjan, tell us what were your growing up years like?

I am Ranjan Kumar Mishra, the eldest son of Geeta Mishra and Sailendra Mishra born at the Govt. Hospital Baripada, Mayurbhanj, Odisha. My father was a civil engineer with Urban and Rural water supply Govt. of Odisha. Although our native place is Jamshedpur, Jharkhand, I grew up and completed my schooling and Bachelors in Mechanical Engineering in Odisha. From childhood, I have had a special inclination towards machines. I used to watch the borewell drilling machine during maintenance or use. After I started riding my bicycle, I used to attend the district science fair (first was in Balasore). I still remember the working model of a steam engine. To see that, after school, I used to visit that display every day. This inspired me to start building my own model. I built my first steam wheel in the next few months after several failed experiments during 6th class. Often, I used to play with spring toys by modifying them (breaking them sometimes). We had a LP player and later got a cassette player. I understood how they work and visited an electronic repair store in Jamshedpur. There, for the first time I saw a small electric motor used in a cassette player. That made me imagine building an electric toy truck. This building and experimenting became my hobby and passion throughout my life. My mother and her father (my grandfather) are the inspiration for transforming my imagination into reality. I started dreaming to be a scientist from 7th grade onwards. When I joined high school, I got an old DC motor from a cassette player. Wow!, it was so fascinating, I explored many methods (with my little theoretical knowledge) to build a toy vehicle. Using parts from broken toys I built a friction drive toy bus. I was thinking of integrating the bicycle dynamo to the toy bus so that it will move continuously.  I feel silly now thinking about “perpetual motion”. I even showed the electric bus in the district science fair. Unfortunately, after the first day, it was stolen from the school, a nice experience. I was an average student with least interest in subjects except science and mathematics. During that time, books and magazines were my only source of information and knowledge. Though I am not an avid reader, I am very selective. I have read several books like Biswa Sahitya Granthamala, Electronics for You, Construction Magazines, How Things Work! etc. However, I was adamant about doing engineering. As always, I managed to get 65% in both 10th and 12th. I did not get a ranking in JEE for whatever reason, and so I decided to join a 3 year diploma in Electronics Engineering. However, after spending one year at Jharsuguda Engineering School, I got selected to join Mechanical Engineering at Orissa Engineering College, Utkal University, Bhubaneswar. I was very happy and confident to study there. One day, during my 2nd year of engineering, one of my best friends showed me a book, “Build Your Robot” that he had purchased from the Railway station. I spent the summer holidays building a two finger gripper based on the idea from the book. Few months later I saw a news article in the Times of India about the first indigenous robot designed and developed by Bhabha Atomic Research Center (BARC) for nuclear material handling. That gave me the idea of reaching out to BARC to explain my idea of the gripper. Without any contact person or address, I wrote a letter explaining the design. To my surprise, I received a very encouraging reply from the great Father of Indian Robotics Mr. M. S. Ramakumar, Head of Robotics BARC during that time. With his invitation, I did an internship at BARC and learnt electro-mechanical design engineering. Later on, I visited BARC several times during my college break to learn robotics engineering. By the end of my under graduation, I had designed a 4-axis industrial robot. This was the foundation of my robotics career. My mother still reminds me of when I built the gripper using plywood during summer break at home. I told her that one day I will design a robot to assist her in doing house work. I will always be inspired by MSR and the BARC team. 

What did you do for graduation/ post-graduation? 

I did my BTech Mechanical Engineering from Utkal University, Odisha and a Masters of Engineering from Nanyang Technological University (NTU) Singapore in Medical Robotics.

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

As mentioned earlier, I was driven by passion for building machines combined with the fascination for computer control and artificial intelligence. It was a natural default decision to pursue a career in robotics.  

Even though I was not a top student, I always wanted to do research, especially after working at the Center for AI & Robotics, DRDO, Bangalore. At DRDO, I designed so many robots and got interested in medical robotics after developing the first robotic and virtual reality based laparoscopic surgical training system. I always wanted to do research based courses and kept reaching out to universities and professors all over the world. Finally, I got an inspiring response from Nanyang Technological University (NTU) Singapore to work and study for a Masters in Engineering by Research. I joined NTU as a research project officer and enrolled in the Masters program. I worked on developing a minimally invasive image guided robotic surgery during my research course while working on other novel robotic surgical systems as a full time research scientist. I decided not to pursue a PhD for the time being and continue with a commercial robotics career.

My key influencers have been M. S. Ramakumar, BARC, Dr. M. Vidyasagar, Director CAIR-DRDO, 

Some of the mentors I would like to mention are Ajay Jain, PRAVAK; Dr. Gerald Seet, NTU; Dr. James English, Energid Technologies; Mier Rosenburg, Medtronic.

My career in robotics would not have been possible without key turning points like the Science fair ( Balasore), Times-of India News article on India’s first Robotics Company, PRAVAK Cybernetics (P) Ltd. New Delhi which manufactures robots for education, research and industry, and the International Conference on Robotics and Intelligent Systems (ICIRS).

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 first job at PRAVAK was the reality check for both my own strength, understanding of customer needs, business and sustainability aspects. I realized the need to broaden the scope to learn and adopt. During my work at PRAVAK, I continuously tried to acquire knowledge through IMTS, IITF. I also developed a robotics system for which I was invited to present my research at ICIRS, Bangalore. 

During this time (1997), I got the opportunity to visit the Center for AI & Robotics (CAIR, DRDO), Bangalore. It was an eye opening experience for me to see the diversity of robotics, control and visual reality. That gave me the inspiration to join CAIR. I was fortunate to work with some of the best brains in India and the world including Dr. APJ Kalam, Dr. H Kota, M Vidyasagar and ofcourse MS Ramakumar. With my industrial robot design and product development experience, I designed a chess playing robot, a low cost intelligent wheelchair and one of the fastest (till date) robot arms as part of the National Robotics Platform.  The intelligent wheelchair was one of the closest projects of Dr. Kalam. Interestingly, the drive system I used to make the wheelchair low cost was nothing but the friction drive I tried when I built the electric model bus during my high school days. We were exploring opportunities to bring robotics technologies to the masses and that is where I got to meet with surgeons from Bangalore Endoscopic Society. They had a unique problem where they wanted a methodical laparoscopic surgery training system replacing the traditional way of cutting tomatoes. These types of training systems were a hot topic of research at that time and I along with a few teams from my group started work on the robotic VR augmented simulation and training platform. This was the stepping stone for me to get into medical robotics. We were the first few elite groups to have fast internet facilities in India, and I used to spend late nights/weekends studying/researching robotics with the help of the internet. The years spent at CAIR were very eventful. I had the unique opportunity to work on developing some of India’s first of its kind robotics systems used for Tejas aircraft, dual articulated tracked mobile robots for SWAT operations to name a few. This helped me to know about Nanyang Technological University doing medical robotics. 

After several rounds of remote interviews, I was selected to work as a research engineer at Robotics Research Centre, NTU, Singapore. Though it was an entry level job careerwise, my fascination with working on medical robotics was powerful enough to push me to take it up. I also got into the Masters program as a part -time student. 

Working at NTU, I realized the need for building a connection between the industry and the university to convert the research into a commercial product. I decided to gain state-of-the-art industrial design expertise. Seagate Technologies is one of the leading technology development companies. They develop their own advanced tools/machines to produce hard-disc drives. Hard-disc drive production is one of the most automated processes. I got the opportunity to work on Seagates’ famous “factories-of-future” system. Although the process is not completely unmanned, operators are there only to support the process. Then I worked on the Viper manufacturing system for the production of the 1 inch HDD used in iPod during those days. I honed my skills in innovative automated machine design and acquired expertise in precision engineering, manufacturing, quality and reliability engineering. Here I designed some of the high-speed advanced computer controlled automated systems. This is the time when tech based startups were making the news, I wanted to explore the challenge of working for a start-up. 

Fluidigm Singapore was one of the R&D centers of the US based Fluidigm Corporation, a startup trying to revolutionize the biotechnology / PCR industry. This is the diversity of Robotics domain as it encompasses mechanical, electrical/electronics, control, programming etc. The primary motivation for choosing Fluidigm Singapore was the role to lead the complete product development life cycle. This is what I was missing in my experience portfolio. It is very essential to execute and gain expertise in the entire product development life cycle. I learnt the key knowledge of testing and validating a design, critical for any successful system and product.  The product I handled was a compact smart system integrated with robotic actuators, pneumatic systems and precision sensors. I gained experience of engaging different teams from marketing, finance, external partners for CE, UL standards certifications. I witnessed for the first time when my product went through a literal drop test to simulate shipping and handling. Over these years of acquiring a gamut of experience from concept to product I wanted to focus on robot product development, and Energid Technologies was working on such an area.

Energid Technologies was an employee owned Robotics R&D company in Boston, MA. The core team was working on cutting edge robotics system R&D. There was a strong need for robot manipulators in the market to support advanced robotics application development research and deployment. I was hired as chief engineer to lead the Cyton series of robot manipulators. We have sold 100s of Cytons all over the world. Along with the Cyton product, I had developed the world’s first robotic orange picking system to support orange growers for harvesting. We also developed unique autonomous intubation systems, humanoid robots, cosmetic quality inspection robots for jewelry/smart watches etc.

How did you get your first break? 

I along with two engineering friends spent 8 months after the final engineering exam building a prototype of a robot that I designed. My friend managed to get Rs 20K funding from Oricom Systems (P) Ltd, Bhubaneswar for the prototype. It was an excellent experience for me. I learnt about component selection, sourcing, budgeting, identifying manufacturing partners, and learning & updating design for manufacturing. In the meantime, as my first preference for a job, I had failed an attempt in the regular selection process to join BARC. I was very adamant to find a job that was in line with my interest in robotics or related fields. I was certainly aware of the very limited opportunities. The prototype was built, integrated and SW development was in progress when I came to know about a company, PRAVAK Cybernetics. I sent my resume with details of the robotic project. I was so excited and confident that I even traveled to Delhi during peak winter to visit PRAVAK with preparation to join. However, Ajay Jain gave me a task to prepare the manufacturing drawing and design documentation of the robot. I was disappointed and returned home to work on preparing the drawings and documents. It was a stressful but fun exercise for two months. I sent the details to Ajay and within two weeks was called to join Pravak as the first Robot Design Engineer for Pravak and may be in India. That built the confidence for my future.

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

Challenge 1: Balancing passion with reality. Thinking of robotics in the early 90s in India was a joke for an average student at a no-name engineering college. Robotics was predominantly a topic of research and linked to highly acclaimed universities and institutions. Only a few IITs, IISc and one or two universities had some faculty with robotics background. They were focused on research only. But everything is possible if it is in the mind. I reached out to get library access at OUAT Bhubaneswar to read robotics related books and research papers. It was a great help to build the theoretical foundation which is very different from the regular university engineering curriculum. This actually inspired me and helped me to build my engineering foundation strong enough to be able to implement the theory in the actual application. Thus I secured a high first class in engineering. 

Challenge 2: Setting goals which are not in line with a typical career path. It is tough to get a job based on one’s passion. When everyone is joining a big corporate or PSU, building and creating your own job/position and career is very tough and seems almost impossible. Though it might be slow and need lots of sacrifice, keeping focus and keeping abreast with the requirements will certainly help achieve the goal. My first job was a position I created by showing and convincing the need to the company. Actually, I have been doing this throughout my career so far.

Challenge 3: Keeping self-confidence with deterring odds all around. Life is a journey and at every phase we have different requirements. Requirements pose challenges and often force one to race against time. Due to peer pressure and societal need, I used to be shaken up about my adamant behavior of sticking to my passion as a profession. However, self-confidence is the inner force that always helps. It was very challenging and I tried to keep up by continuously updating myself. It is necessary to learn the latest happenings in the field, upcoming technologies and hot research trends. It requires effort and time since it is not part of the regular job schedule. 

Where do you work now? 

I am currently working as a Roboticist at Medtronic Surgical Robotics, North Haven CT USA

What problems do you solve? 

Engineering is a scientific method of solving a problem while balancing cost and benefits. There is nothing that is ultimate. The current version of the surgical robot is already helping patients and surgeons around the world. However, the quest for reaching out to more patients is motivating engineers like me to invent something that can make the system affordable, accessible and adoptable. 

Surgical robotics at present is predominantly a robot assisted surgical system. The intent is not to replace the human surgeon but to take the physical strain and provide dexterity, flexibility. Robot assisted surgery (RAS) can be minimally invasive (MIS) or non-invasive. Minimally invasive robots are used to manipulate the spatial laparoscopic surgical tools & endoscopes tele-operated by a surgeon. Surgeon sits at a console with a specialized joystick-like input device to manipulate the robotic arms and surgical tools remotely while looking through live endoscope images of surgical sites inside the patient. The process is similar to computer games such as flight simulators. Contrary to flight simulators which are limited to visual and audio feedback of the gamer’s action, in RAS the robot actually performs what the surgeon is executing through the input devices.  Non-invasive surgeries are also similar to the MIS, except the surgical tools are different and don’t make contact with the patient directly. Radiation, cryoablation, high energy ultrasound devices are manipulated through robotic systems to precisely target affected sites external or internal to the patient. Often these systems have live image guidance to help surgeons for precise target location. In order to design and develop such a system, my primary customers are the surgeons, surgical supporting staff, medical surgical researchers. Surgical researchers provide the know-how of the surgical tools while surgeons and staff provide what they need. 

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

There are no fixed skills, as my current job is highly dynamic due to continuously evolving technologies. Academic qualification is only to make someone capable of understanding the language of the relevant people and work. Domain expertise is the key and that is dependent on the scope of the work. It is necessary to build cross-disciplinary domain expertise around the core competencies. 

What’s a typical day like? 

Actually there is no end to a workday, not in a literal sense though. Basically, my work is not predefined, and the challenge is in finding an answer to the question on hand, which is not there. Basically since you yourself raise the question, you know the answer is also unknown. While I am out of my official work schedule I keep thinking in the background for possible solutions. It’s actually fun and keeps me motivated. Since my hobby, passion and profession are the same, it is enjoyable. Often I reach out to colleagues off hours with questions/solutions. The work environment is very friendly and appreciative as like-minded people are around you. Honestly, it is up to you to create such an environment which makes you feel that way.  

What is it you love about this job? 

It is the eagerness to bring something new that makes the job exciting. The new may not be a “great achievement”, but the feeling of getting a solution to a problem on hand is tremendous. 

How does your work benefit society? 

The main focus of my work is to bring out surgical robot systems that can reach more and more patients to alleviate pain, restore health and extend their life. I have been involved in medical robotics for more than 22 years and all my efforts are directed towards helping humankind directly. On the personal front, I am working on developing low cost robotics actuators to make robots more affordable to enable service and agricultural robots. 

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

One of my primary efforts is to bring down the cost of robots and robotic systems to make them more affordable and far reaching. One such effort is the Cyton series of robotic arms that I designed and developed at Energid Technologies USA. This robot is one of the lightest and versatile arms under its category to go onboard the International Space Station to conduct microgravity research in outer space for which it was made.

Your advice to students based on your experience? 

Identify your inner passion and try to find a societal cause that can benefit with it. Every work has a direct or indirect effect on society. Balance academics with your passion to have a stable career path. Give enough justice to your capabilities, expectations and interests to keep your self-confidence. Be a good listener and never let go of a chance to learn. Knowledge is the power and inner passion has the power to bring out the best from everyone.

Future Plans? 

I want to develop the next generation robotic systems for agriculture, medicine and biology. I also want to develop low cost robot actuators, bionic limbs, and proprioceptive assistive devices.