An Interview with Sulu Callas – Senior Electronics Engineer, Starship Technologies.
At the Starship Head Office in Tallinn’s Mustamae, the world’s leading delivery robot is being built as a solution to the Last Mile Delivery Challenge – a six-wheeled robotic vehicle, similar to a small moonwalker. An expert in both home electronics and software is invited to join the robotics platform team, which combines these two skills into one role.
We do not expect perfect knowledge of several technologies. What is important is that the members of this new team have an interest in learning from themselves and finding a solution to each challenge. Because there are so many challenges that need to be addressed that no one in the world has created before.
What is Starship giving to this new team member? Senior electronics engineer Sullo Calas, who joined Starship early, has the answer.
Why Starship? There is intense competition for employees in the technology sector. How do you attract talent to join you?
We are doing something that was said to be impossible a few years ago. We are the world’s leading company in robotizing last mile delivery; Offer an alternative to traditional services. We are not just a leader, a leader, no one else has come this far.
We have a clear goal and vision, which our employees understand and feel – our work has an impact and a real result. We listen to our people; They have a lot of freedom and no chain of command from top to bottom. Everyone can express their opinion and give their solution.
Which has inspired you the most in this job and which part of your work do you enjoy the most?
I like that the decisions of the starship are reasonable. It would be difficult for me to work in an organization where management does something that is not reasonable. We have a common goal: to solve the challenges presented by Last Mile Delivery Services and to reach every corner of the globe with our robots. That is why the whole team is working.
The founder of the company, Ahati Heinla, is an engineer and is still developing the software himself. He is a highly talented and creative software engineer with extensive programming experience. Ahti has managed to keep the company focused on the most important issues – product and service development
I also like that everyone has the opportunity to influence the development of the company. The people I communicate with every day are really nice. There are some brilliant brains working here, you could even say that every second person here is a kind of genius. And, of course, I care about what we want to achieve.
What is your team doing at Starship and what is the most exciting challenge for you so far?
I work in a platform team, which connects two areas. On the one hand, mechanical engineers work with mechanical parts, and on the other, software engineers write artificial intelligence, navigation, machine vision, and other programs. We work with electronics, hardware and software.
We don’t write artificial intelligence code that forces a robot to do anything. Rather, we offer a technical platform for it. We design the electronic modules ourselves and do not use standard electronics solutions.
There is no doubt that a significant amount of programming is involved with electronic modules. Our platform team is working to secure a functional operating system, we build drivers and other necessary support for software that controls the robot, so that it can connect to physical components and sensors. We also do quite deep level embedded development and non-embedded development.
Does this mean you often have to hold a soldering iron?
Indeed, a soldering iron is a common tool, but we do not solder new models ourselves. Even the first prototype that we order from the factory, electronics is no longer “home made”. But when it comes to prototyping, it rarely works flawlessly from the start. In the beginning, we make lots of additions and corrections and soldering irons are a must.
Some of us are good at both hardware and software. For example, some drivers of driver software need to know more about hardware than ordinary programmers. Conventional software developers are usually unfamiliar with hardware. In general, our team is working in areas where software and hardware come together.
Who do you want to add to your team and what should they know?
We are not looking for a specific person with specific skills, but we are looking for a talented engineer who is interested in working in the field of hardware and software. If they have strong electronics, we are interested in them. If they are strong in software, we are also interested in them. If they can do both, better yet.
Inevitably, we deal with completely new things on a daily basis and we do not have a suitable readymade solution at hand. So, we are creating new solutions that did not exist in this form before. It requires people who do not do what they are told to do. We need creative experts who understand what is needed, and can come up with a solution that meets that need. Sometimes you need a solution with simple electronics and complex software and sometimes it’s the other way around.
We are looking for a free-spirited person who is always looking for a suitable approach. We are basically looking for open minded engineers. A person who sees finding a solution to a problem as a challenge, not as an obstacle. In fact, we have different kinds of problems that need better solutions. To give some examples, a member of this new team could be a programmer with network experience, or an electronics engineer who can do analog electronics.
How can new employees improve themselves and learn new skills?
Only a person who can learn on his own can be successful in this field, although there are opportunities for training. In our company, training does not mean anything classical, such as participating in various courses. Skills are also developed through mentoring. We have a mentoring program every year. We educate newcomers, and employees can choose their mentors themselves.
What personality traits should the person joining your team have and what should they be prepared for?
Theoretically, this is possible, but there is no one on the platform team who can do their job completely alone, because we are facing a really difficult challenge. You always have to communicate with others. We need to make sure that the needs of the platform users are met.
You need to contact programmers and mechanical engineers. A good example is the lock for the robot. Robot locks require electronics and software to detect whether the door locking process is closed, open or jammed.
So far, Starship Robot has delivered over 2 million. There have been failures at that time, and in our interactions with other parties we have to investigate and resolve; Including, in large quantities, maintenance teams. Since we offer a Last Mile Delivery service, we need to build a robot that is durable enough for everyday use and easy to maintain. We are looking for someone who is a communicator and independent thinker and is able to find great solutions.
What has been the most complex solution your team has come up with?
One of the main tasks of the modern PCI Express was to transfer the connection plates connecting the cameras to the computer. This was our biggest single project so far. It is a PCI Express expansion card that lets you connect more than ten cameras and other high-speed devices to a robot’s computer and make it available in operating systems and application software. However, I can’t disclose all these details.
Cameras, radars, motor controllers – the electronics of all these components are made by us, and these tasks have also become quite complex. To be more specific, we made the card based on FPGA. PCI Express FPGA cards help transfer data between sensors, cameras and on-board computers, especially fast.
What do team members do in their spare time, what are their hobbies from different fields?
Platform teams tend to be interested in similar topics at home. They are all people with a kind of engineering passion, who do more or less the same thing in their spare time, like some great electronics, mechanics or computer hobby.
But this is the case in this area. This is the best place if you want to combine your hobbies and work.