An interview with Sulo 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 last-mile delivery challenge: a six-wheeled robotic vehicle, resembling a small moonwalker. A specialist at home, both in electronics and software, is invited to join the team of the robotics platform, which combines these two areas of experience in the same role.
We do not expect perfect knowledge of various technologies. What’s important is that this new team member is eager to learn on their own and find a solution to every challenge. Because there are many challenges that need solutions that no one in the world has created before.
What does Starship offer this new team member? Senior electronic engineer Sulo Kallas, who joined Starship in his early years, has the answers.
Why Starship? There is intense competition for employees in the technology industry. How do you attract talent to join you?
We’re doing something that a few years ago was said to be impossible. We are the world’s leading company in last mile delivery robotization; 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 goal 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 offer their solution.
What kept you motivated in this job and what part of your job do you enjoy the most?
I like that the decisions at Starship are reasonable. It would be hard for me to work in an organization where management does things that are not rational. We have a common goal: to meet the challenges of last-mile delivery services and reach every corner of the globe with our robots. The whole team is working on it.
The company’s founder, Ahti Heinla, is an engineer and is still creating 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 come in contact with on a daily basis are very nice. There are some of the brightest brains working here, you could even say that every second person here is a kind of genius. And of course, I care what we want to achieve.
What is your team doing at Starship and what have been the most interesting challenges for you so far?
I work on 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 artificial intelligence, navigation, artificial vision, and other programs. We deal with electronics, hardware and software.
We don’t write the artificial intelligence code that causes a robot to 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 certainly a significant amount of programming related to electronic modules. Our platform team is working to ensure a working operating system, we develop drivers and create other necessary supports for the software that controls the robot, so that it can be connected to the physical components and sensors. We also do a fairly deep level embedded development and also a non-embedded development.
Does that mean you often have to catch a welder?
In fact, a welder is a common tool, but we do not weld new models ourselves. Even the first prototype we ordered from the factory, the electronics are no longer “home”. But when the prototype arrives, it rarely works perfectly from the start. At first, we make a lot of additions and corrections, and the welder is definitely needed.
Some of us are experts in both hardware and software. For example, some software drivers need to know much more about hardware than normal programmers. Conventional software developers are often unfamiliar with hardware. In general, our team is working in the field where software and hardware come together.
Who do you want to add to your team and what do you 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 in the combined area of hardware and software. If they are strong in electronics, we are interested. If they are strong in software, we are also interested in them. If they can do both, so much the better.
Inevitably, we deal with completely new things on a daily basis and we don’t have solutions already handmade. Therefore, we are creating new solutions that never existed before in this way. This requires people not to simply do what they are told to do. We need creative specialists who understand what the need is 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 person who will always find the right approach. We are basically looking for an open minded engineer. A person who sees finding a solution to a problem as a challenge, rather than seeing the problems as an obstacle. In fact, we have a variety of problems that need good solutions. To give a few examples, this new member of the team could be an experienced network programmer or an electronic engineer, who can weld analog electronics.
How does the new employee improve and learn new skills?
Only a person who can learn on his own can succeed in this field, although there are also training opportunities. In our company, training does not mean something classic, 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?
In theory, this is possible, but today there is no one on the platform team who can do their job completely alone, because we face really difficult challenges. You always have to communicate with others. We need to make sure that the needs of the users of the platform 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 lock mechanism is closed, open, or jammed.
To date, Starship robots have delivered more than 2 million deliveries. There have been mistakes during this time, and we need to investigate and resolve them in our interactions with other teams; including, to a large extent, maintenance equipment. Because we offer a last mile delivery service, we need to make a robot durable enough for everyday use and easy to maintain. We are looking for an independent communicative and thinking person, able to find great solutions.
What have been the most complex solutions your team has come up with?
An important task was to transfer the motherboard that connects the cameras to the computers to the modern PCI Express. This was the biggest individual 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 robot computer and make them available to the operating system and application software. However, I cannot post the very detailed details of all this.
Cameras, radars, engine controllers: the electronics of all these components are made by us, and these tasks have also been quite complex. To be more specific, we created the card based on FPGA. The PCI Express FPGA card helps move data between sensors, cameras, and the on-board computer, especially quickly.
What do team members do in their free time, their hobbies are from a different field?
The platform team is also often interested in similar topics at home. All of these are people with a kind of passion for engineering, who do more or less the same things in their spare time, such as some interesting hobbies in electronics, mechanics, or computer science.
But that’s the way it is. If you want to combine your hobby and your job, this is the best place to be.