“We are doing something that was said to be impossible a few years ago”
An interview with Sulo Kallas — Principal Electronic Engineer, Starship Technologies.
At Starship’s headquarters in Mustamäe, Tallinn, the world’s first delivery robot is being developed as a solution for the last mile delivery challenge – a six-wheeled robotic vehicle, resembling a small moonwalker. A specialist, comfortable in both electronics and software, is invited to join the robotics platform team, which combines these two areas of expertise in a single position.
Perfect knowledge of several technologies is not expected. What is important is that this new member of the team has the desire to learn on their own and find a solution to each challenge. Because there are many challenges that require solutions that no one in the world has created before.
What does Starship offer this new team member? Senior electronics engineer Sulo Kallas, who joined Starship in its early years, has the answers.
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 just a few years ago. We are the world leader in last mile delivery automation; offering an alternative to traditional services. We are not just one of the leaders, but the leader, no one else has come this far.
We have a clear purpose and vision, which our employees understand and feel: our work has an impact and a tangible result. We listen to our people; they have a lot of freedom and there is no top-down chain of command. Everyone can express their opinion and propose their solution.
What motivated you the most in this job and what part of your job do you enjoy the most?
I like that decisions in Starship are reasonable. It would be difficult for me to work in an organization where management does things that are not rational. We have a common goal: to meet the challenges posed by last mile delivery services and reach every corner of the world with our robots. The whole team is working for this.
The company’s founder, Ahti Heinla, is an engineer and creates software himself. He is a very talented and creative software engineer with extensive programming experience. Ahti has managed to keep the company focused on what matters most: product and service development.
I also like that everyone has the opportunity to influence the development of the company. The people I meet on a daily basis are really nice. Some of the brightest minds work here, you could even say that one in two people here is some kind of genius. And, of course, I care about what we want to achieve.
What does your team do at Starship and what have been the most interesting challenges for you so far?
I work in a platform team, which connects two domains. On the one hand, mechanical engineers deal with the mechanical part, and on the other, software engineers write programs for artificial intelligence, navigation, machine vision, and other programs. We take care of electronics, hardware and software.
We don’t write the artificial intelligence code that makes a robot do something. Rather, we provide a technology platform for this. We design the electronic modules ourselves and do not use standard electronic solutions.
There is, without a doubt, a significant amount of programming involved in electronic modules. Our platform team works to secure a working operating system, we develop drivers and create other necessary support for the software that controls the robot, so that it can connect to physical components and sensors. We do pretty deep embedded development and non-embedded development as well.
Does that mean you often have to grab a soldering iron?
Indeed, a soldering iron is a common tool, but we do not solder the new models ourselves. Even the first prototype we order from the factory, the electronics are no longer “home-made” these days. But when the prototype arrives, it rarely works perfectly from the start. In the beginning, a lot of additions and corrections are made, and the soldering iron is definitely necessary.
Some of us are proficient in both hardware and software. For example, some driver software authors need to know much more about the hardware than ordinary programmers. Conventional software developers are generally unfamiliar with hardware. In general, our team works in the area where software and hardware come together.
Who are you looking 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 wants to operate in the merged field of hardware and software. If they are strong in electronics, we are interested in them. If they are strong in software, we are also interested in them. If they can do both, even better.
Inevitably, we deal with completely new things on a daily basis and we don’t have ready-made, suitable solutions at hand. Thus, we create new solutions that did not exist in this form before. It requires people who don’t just do what they are told to do. We need creative specialists who understand the need and can find 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 an open-minded person who always finds a suitable approach. We are essentially looking for an open-minded engineer. A person who sees finding a solution to a problem as a challenge, instead of seeing problems as obstacles. In fact, we have a variety of problems that require good solutions. To give a few examples, this new team member could be a programmer with networking experience, or an electronics engineer, who can solder analog electronics.
How does the new employee improve and learn new skills?
Only someone who can learn on their own can be successful in this field, although there are training opportunities as well. In our company, training does not mean something classic, like attending various courses. Skills are also developed through mentoring. We have a mentorship program every year. We educate newcomers and employees can self-select their mentors.
What personality traits should the person joining your team have and what should they be prepared for?
In theory it is possible, but today there is no one in the platform team who can do their job completely alone, because we are facing really difficult challenges. You must always communicate with others. We need to ensure that the needs of platform users are met.
You need to communicate with programmers and mechanical engineers. A good example is robot locks. In robot locks, electronics and software are needed to understand whether the door locking mechanism is closed, open or stuck.
So far, Starship robots have delivered more than 2 million deliveries. There have been failures during this time, and we need to investigate and resolve them in our interactions with other teams; including, to a large extent, the maintenance team. As we offer a last mile delivery service, we need to make a robot that is durable enough for everyday use and easy to maintain. We are looking for someone who is a communicative and independent thinker, and able to find good solutions.
What were the most complex solutions your team found?
A major task was to transfer the connector plate that connects the cameras to the computers to modern PCI Express. It was the biggest project we ever had. This is a PCI Express expansion card that allows you to connect more than ten cameras and other high-speed peripherals to a robot computer and make them available to the operating system and application software . However, I cannot publish the very detailed details of all this.
Cameras, radars, motor controllers – the electronics for all these components are manufactured by us, and these tasks were also quite complex. To be more specific, we created the board based on the FPGA. The PCI Express FPGA card helps move data between sensors, cameras and the on-board computer, particularly quickly.
What do team members do in their free time, are their hobbies in a different area?
The platform team also tends to focus on similar topics at home. They are all people with some kind of passion for engineering, who do more or less the same things in their free time, like electronics, mechanics or IT.
But that’s how it is in this area. If you want to combine your hobby and work, this is the best place to go.