“We did something that was said to be impossible just a few years ago” | by Annela Coates | Starship Technologies | Nov, 2021
An Interview with Sulo Kallas – Senior Electronics Engineer, Starship Technologies.
At Starship Head Office in Mustamäe, Tallinn, the world’s leading delivery robot was created as a solution to the last mile delivery challenge-a six-wheel robotic vehicle, similar to a small moonwalker. A specialist, in the house of both electronics and software, is invited to join the robotics platform group, which combines these two areas of expertise in one role.
We do not expect full knowledge of many technologies. The important thing is that this new team member has an interest in learning on their own, and finding a solution to each challenge. Because there are so many challenges that need solutions that nothing has been done in the world 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 fierce competition for employees in the technology sector. How do you attract talent to join you?
We did something that was said to be impossible just a few years ago. We are the world’s leading robotics company to deliver the last mile; offers an alternative to traditional services. Not only are we one of the leaders, but the leader, no one else has come this far.
We have a clear purpose and vision, which is understood and felt by our employees-our work has an impact and a visible outcome. 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 offer their solution.
What makes you most motivated in this job and what part of your job do you enjoy the most?
I like that Starship’s decisions are reasonable. It’s hard for me to work in an organization where management is doing things unreasonably. We have a common goal: to solve the challenges presented by last -mile delivery services and to reach every corner of the world using our robots. The whole team is working for that.
The founder of the company, Ahti Heinla, is an engineer and he still makes software himself. He is a talented and creative software engineer with extensive programming experience. Ahti was able 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 contact every day are so wonderful. There are some of the brightest brains at work 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 has your Starship team done and what have been the most interesting challenges for you so far?
I work in a platform group, connecting the two areas. On the one hand, mechanical engineers deal with the mechanical part and, on the other hand, software engineers write artificial intelligence, navigation, machine vision, and other programs. We deal in electronics, hardware, and software.
We don’t write artificial intelligence code that makes a robot do something. However, we offer a technological 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 associated with electronic modules. Our platform team works to ensure a working operating system, we create 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 deep level embedded progress and non-embedded progress as well.
Does this mean you always have to hold on to a soldering iron?
Actually, a solder iron is a common tool, but we don’t sell new models ourselves. Even the first prototype we ordered from the factory, the electronics are no longer “homemade” these days. But when the prototype arrives, it rarely works without error from the start. Initially, we made a lot of additions and corrections, and a soldering iron was absolutely necessary.
Some of us are skilled in hardware and software. For example, some driver software writers need to know more about hardware than ordinary programmers. Ordinary software developers are often unfamiliar with hardware. Overall, our team works in an area where software and hardware come together.
Who are you looking to add to your team and what do they need to know?
We are not looking for a specific person with specific skills, but we are looking for a talented engineer, who is interested in operating the molten area 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 face completely new things every day, and we don’t have the right ready-made solutions available. So, we create new solutions that have never existed in this form before. It takes people not doing what they are told to do. We need creative specialists who understand what is needed, and come up with a solution that meets that need. Sometimes you need a solution of simple electronic and complex software, and sometimes it is the other way around.
We are looking for an open minded person who will always find a suitable approach. We are primarily looking for open minded engineers. Someone who views finding a solution to a problem as a challenge, rather than seeing problems as obstacles. In fact, we have a variety of problems that need a good solution. To give a few examples, this new team member could be a programmer with network experience, or an electronics engineer, who can sell analog electronics.
How do new employees improve themselves and learn new skills?
Only a person who can learn on their own, can be successful in this field, even if there are training opportunities as well. In our company, training does not mean classical, such as participating in various courses. Skills are also developed through teaching. I have a mentoring program every year. We teach newcomers, and employees can choose their teachers themselves.
What personality traits should the person joining your team have and what should they be prepared for?
In theory, this is possible, but no one on the platform team today can do their job completely alone, because we face difficult challenges. You need to constantly communicate with others. We need to make sure the needs of the users of the platform are met.
You need to communicate with programmers and mechanical engineers. A good example is locks for robots. In locks for robots, electronics and software are needed to understand if the door locking mechanism is closed, open or jammed.
So far, Starship robots have already delivered more than 2 million deliveries. There were failures at that time, and we had to investigate and resolve them in our interactions with other groups; including, for the most part, the maintenance team. While we offer a last mile delivery service, we need to make a robot that is strong 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 are the most complex solutions your team has come up with?
A big task is to move the connection plate that connects cameras to computers, to modern PCI Express. This is the biggest single project we’ve had. It is a PCI Express expansion card that allows you to connect more than ten cameras and other high-speed devices to a robot computer and make it available to the operating system and application software. However, I will not publish the very detailed details of all this.
Cameras, radar, motor controllers – the electronics of all these components are made by us, and these tasks are also complicated. To be more specific, we made the card based on FPGA. The PCI Express FPGA card helps transfer data between sensors, cameras, and the on-board computer, especially quickly.
What do team members do in their free time, their hobbies from a different field?
The platform group is likely also interested in the same topics at home. These are all people with a different passion for engineering, who do more or less the same things in their free time, like some cool electronics, mechanics or computer entertainment.
But such is the case in this area. If you want to combine your leisure and work, this is the perfect place.