“We are doing what was considered impossible a few years ago” | Annela Coates | Star Technologies | Nov 2021

Interview with Sulo Callas – Senior Electrical Engineer, Starship Technologies.

At the Starship headquarters in Mustamäe, Tallinn, the world’s leading delivery robot is being developed as a solution to the last mile delivery problem – a six-wheeled robotic vehicle resembling a small moonwalker. An electronics and software specialist is invited to join the robotics platform development team that brings these two areas of expertise together in one role.

We don’t expect perfect knowledge of multiple technologies. What matters is that this new team member has a desire to learn on his own and find a solution to every problem. Because there are many problems that need to be solved that no one else in the world has created before.

What does Starship offer this new team member? Senior Electronics Engineer Sulo Callas, who joined Starship in the early years, knows the answers.

Why a starship? There is intense competition for employees in the technology sector. How to attract talent?

We are doing what was considered impossible a few years ago. We are the world leader in last mile delivery robots; offering an alternative to traditional services. We are not just one of the leaders, but also a leader, no one else has gone that far.

Sulo Callas, Senior Electronics Engineer, Starship Technologies

We have a clear goal and vision that our employees understand and feel – our work yields results and yields tangible results. We listen to our people; they have a lot of freedom and no top-down submission. Everyone can express their opinion and offer their own solution.

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

I love that the decisions at Starship are smart. It would be difficult for me to work in an organization where management does irrational things. We have a common goal: to solve the problems posed by “last mile” delivery services and reach all corners of the world with the help of our robots. The whole team is working on it.

The founder of the company, Ahti Heinla, is an engineer and still creates software himself. He is a very talented and creative software engineer with extensive programming experience. Ahti managed to focus the company 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 talk to every day are really nice. Some of the brightest minds work here, one can even say that every second person here is a kind of genius. And, of course, I am worried about what we want to achieve.

What is your team at Starship doing and what challenges were you most interested in?

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

We are not writing artificial intelligence code that makes a robot do something. Rather, we offer a technology platform for this. We design the electronic modules ourselves and do not use standard electronic solutions.

There is no doubt that a significant amount of programming is involved with electronic modules. Our platform development team is working on the security of 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 are engaged in the development of both embedded and non-embedded systems at a fairly deep level.

Does this mean that you often have to pick up a soldering iron?

Indeed, a soldering iron is an ordinary tool, but we do not solder the new models themselves. Even the first prototype we order from the factory is no longer “homemade” electronics these days. But when a prototype arrives, it rarely works flawlessly from the start. In the beginning, we make quite a few additions and corrections, and a soldering iron is definitely needed.

Some of us are good at both hardware and software. For example, some driver software developers need to know much more about hardware than regular programmers. Typical software developers are usually unfamiliar with hardware. In general, our team works in the area where software and hardware are combined.

Who do you want to add to your team and what should they know?

We are not looking for a specific person with special skills, we are looking for a talented engineer who is interested in working in a mixed field of hardware and software. If they are good at electronics, we are interested in them. If they are good at software, we are interested in them too. It’s even better if they can do both.

It is inevitable that we are dealing with completely new things every day, and we do not have suitable ready-made solutions at hand. So, we create new solutions that did not exist in this form before. This requires people who do not just do what they are told. We need creative professionals who understand what the need is and can find a solution that meets that need. Sometimes a solution with simple electronics and complex software is required, and sometimes the other way around.

We are looking for an open-minded person who will always find the right approach. Basically, we are looking for an open minded engineer. A person who sees the solution to a problem as a problem, not an obstacle. In fact, we have many problems that require good solutions. Here are some examples. This new team member can be a programmer with networking experience or an electronic engineer who can solder analog electronics.

How does a new employee improve and learn new skills?

Only a person who can study on their own can be successful in this area, although there are learning opportunities. In our company, training is not something classical, for example, participation in various courses. Skills are also developed through mentoring. We have a mentoring program every year. We train newcomers, and employees choose their own mentors.

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

In theory, this is possible, but today there is not a single person on the platform team who could do his job alone, because we are faced with really difficult problems. You should always communicate with others. We need to make sure that the needs of the platform users are met.

You have to communicate with programmers and mechanics. Robot locks are a good example. Robot locks require electronics and software to know if the door locking mechanism is closed, open, or jammed.

To date, Starship robots have delivered over 2 million deliveries. During this time, there have been failures, and we need to investigate and fix them in our interaction with other teams; including, to a large extent, the maintenance team. Since we offer a last mile delivery service, we must create a robot that is robust enough for everyday use and easy to maintain. We are looking for a communicative and independent thinker who can come up with great solutions.

What are the toughest decisions your team has come up with?

The main task was to transfer the connecting plate that connects cameras to computers to modern PCI Express. It was the largest project we have ever had. It is a PCI Express expansion card that allows more than ten cameras and other high-speed devices to be connected to a computer in a robot and made available to the operating system and application software. However, I cannot post the details of all this.

Cameras, radars, engine controllers – the electronics of all these components are made by us, and these tasks were also quite difficult. More precisely, we created an FPGA-based card. The PCI Express FPGA card helps to move data especially quickly between sensors, cameras and the onboard computer.

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

The platform team is usually interested in similar topics at home. These are all people with an engineering enthusiasm who do more or less the same things in their free time, like doing cool electronics, mechanics, or computer hobbies.

But here’s how things stand in this area. If you want to combine hobby and work, this is the best place to relax.

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