“We are doing something that was said to be impossible only a few years ago.”  lähde: Annela Coates |  Starship Technologies |  Nov, 2021

“We are doing something that was said to be impossible only a few years ago.” lähde: Annela Coates | Starship Technologies | Nov, 2021

Interview with Sul Kallas – Senior Electronics Engineer, Starship Technologies.

At Starship’s headquarters in Mustamäe, Tallinn, the world’s leading delivery robot is being developed as a solution to the challenge of last mile delivery – a six-wheeled robotic vehicle that resembles a small lunar walker. The specialist, at home for electronics and software, is invited to join the robotics platform team, which combines these two areas of expertise in one role.

We do not expect perfect knowledge of several technologies. What is important is that this new team member has the desire to learn independently and to find a solution to every 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 his early years, has the answers.

Why Starship? There is a lot of 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 last mile delivery robotics; offering an alternative to traditional services. We are not just one of the leaders, but a leader, no one else has come that far.

“We are doing something that was said to be impossible only a few years ago.”  lähde: Annela Coates |  Starship Technologies |  Nov, 2021
Sulo Kallas, Senior Electronics Engineer, Starship Technologies

We have a clear goal and vision that 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 no chain of command from top to bottom. Everyone can express their opinion and offer their solution.

What motivated you the most in this job and what part of your job do you enjoy the most?

I like that the 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 solve the challenges posed by last mile delivery services and reach every corner of the world with our robots. The whole team is working on it.

The founder of the company, Ahti Heinla, is an engineer and still creates the 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 is most important – product and service development.

I also like the fact that everyone has the opportunity to influence the development of the company. The people I am in daily contact with are really kind. Some of the brightest brains work here, you could even say that every other person here is a genius in some way. And, of course, I care about what we want to achieve.

What is your Starship team doing and what have been the most interesting challenges for you so far?

I work in a platform team, which connects two areas. On the one hand, mechanical engineers deal with the mechanical part, and on the other hand, software engineers write programs for artificial intelligence, navigation, machine vision and other programs. We deal in electronics, hardware and software.

We don’t write with artificial intelligence that makes a robot do something. Instead, we offer a technology platform for it. We design electronic modules ourselves and do not use standard electronic solutions.

There is no doubt that a significant amount of programming is involved in electronic modules. Our platform team works to provide a working operating system, develop drivers, and create other necessary support for robot-controlled software so that it can connect to physical components and sensors. We deal with built-in development of a fairly deep level and non-built-in development.

Does that mean you often have to grab a soldering iron?

Indeed, a soldering iron is a common tool, but we do not solder new models ourselves. Even the first prototype we order from the factory, the electronics these days are no longer “domestic”. But when a prototype arrives, it rarely works flawlessly from the start. In the beginning, we do a lot of additions and corrections, and a soldering iron is definitely needed.

Some of us know both hardware and software. For example, some driver software writers need to know much more about hardware than ordinary programmers. Conventional software developers are usually unfamiliar with hardware. In general, our team works in an area where software and hardware come together.

When do you want 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 working in the combined 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 I can do both, even better.

We inevitably deal with completely new things every day, and we do not have the appropriate ready-made solutions at hand. So we are creating new solutions that have never existed in this form before. This requires people who do not simply do what they are told. We need creative experts who understand what a need is and can create a solution that meets that need. Sometimes you need a solution with simple electronics and complex software, and sometimes the other way around.

We are looking for an open-minded person who always finds the right approach. We are essentially looking for an open-minded engineer. A person who sees finding solutions to problems as a challenge, instead of seeing problems as obstacles. In fact, we have a number of problems that need good solutions. To give some examples, this new team member could be a network experience programmer or an electronics engineer, who can solder analog electronics.

How does a new employee improve and learn new skills?

Only a person who can learn on his own can be successful in this area, although there are training opportunities. In our company, training does not mean something classic, like 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 own mentors.

What personality traits should a person joining your team have and what should they be prepared for?

In theory, that is possible, but today there is no person in the team of the platform who can do his job completely alone, because we are facing really difficult challenges. You always have to communicate with others. We need to make sure that the needs of the platform users are met.

You need to communicate with developers and mechanical engineers. A good example are robot locks. In robot locks, electronics and software are needed to understand whether the door lock mechanism is closed, open or stuck.

So far, Starship robots have shipped more than 2 million shipments. There have been failures during that time and we need to explore and address them in our interactions with other teams; including, to a large extent, a 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 a person who is a communicative and independent thinker, and able to find great solutions.

What were the most complex solutions your team came up with?

The main task was to transfer the connection board that connects the cameras to the computers to the modern PCI Express. This was the largest single project we have ever had. It is a PCI Express expansion card that allows you to connect more than ten cameras and other high-speed devices to a computer in the robot and make them available to the operating system and application software. However, I cannot publish very detailed details of all this.

Cameras, radars, motor controllers – we do the electronics of all these components, and these tasks were also quite complex. To be more precise, we created an FPGA-based card. The PCI Express FPGA card helps move data between sensors, cameras and the embedded computer, especially quickly.

What do team members do in their free time, are their hobbies from another area?

The platform team tends to be interested in similar topics at home. These are all people with some kind of engineering passion, who do more or less the same things in their free time, like some cool electronics, mechanics or computer hobbies.

But that is how it is in this area. If you want to combine your hobby and business, this is the best place to do it.

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