Hailing from a rural village in the south-west of Scotland, Michael now finds himself responsible for engineering delivery for a warehouse automation solution in the logistics domain for the Japanese and wider markets. Michael joined Rapyuta as a graduate from the University of Glasgow where he obtained a First Class M.Eng degree in Electronics & Electrical Engineering. Today, he is an Engineering Lead and responsible for day-to-day operations of a 15 member team.
Rohit: Good Morning Michael! You have been to Glasgow and now you are in Tokyo, so how has been your experience?
Michael: It’s a good question. I am actually from the countryside, I belong to a small village of around 400 people. So when I first went to university, Glasgow had around 600,000 people. So, for me that was a big change, going to a big city which I considered to be cosmopolitan and things like that. After I graduated, I came here and it is one of the largest cities in the world. It has in effect 32 million people in its metro area. That again was a large change for me. But I am adaptable and I do tend to enjoy the city, particularly Tokyo. I think it’s a nice place to live. It is clean and orderly with lots of amenities. I have a good quality of life here although I would imagine it is quite cheaper back home if I had to stay there.
Rohit: Interesting. What got you interested in Robotics in the first place?
Michael: I always considered myself to be like an inventor, although most people just these days use the word hacker. I like to experiment with stuff, I like to try things out as opposed to just replicating what other people do. Mainly to satisfy my own curiosity and also just really understand how things work. That is how I learn.
So, my background is in Electronics & Electrical Engineering. It’s hardware-focused, you know circuit boards, PCBs etc. As part of that we did embedded programming on microcontrollers and I discovered that I did have quite an appreciation for the software side of engineering and I had not paid much attention to it before. So I started experimenting in my own time but considering my background is in traditional engineering, I just like that part of engineering and robotics is multi disciplinary as we know. It has Mechanical and Electrical engg, Software, Computer Science, AI. It is really the amalgamation of all, cutting edge of each part of these disciplines. So I found myself attracted to Robotics.
Furthermore, I do tend to be hands on, as I mentioned. So a pure software role, It’s abstract. You’re dealing with code on a server somewhere. Most cases are maybe an Android app or something like that. Whereas with robotics there’s a physical machine that you’re controlling and I like that concrete implementation of my code. I like to see physical change. I like to build stuff and have something in front of me. I think it’s satisfying. But I also think it does tie into my nature that I do like to command things and control things. So just having a robot that follows my every instruction is fun and one reason why I got into this.
Rohit: So how did you come across Rapyuta Robotics?
Michael: I’d been reading news articles and stuff in university just to see what was out there and what the recent developments were. I scraped through a couple of feeds and stuff like that. I saw a news article published, must of been around 2015, four or five years ago. It was from a Swiss website and it was about this company and one of the milestones it achieved. I read the article and they were talking about getting some seed funding. I just mentally took a note of Rapyuta Robotics and kept them in the back of my head. When I graduated, I knew I wanted to try robotics for a career. So I was just going through my mental list of companies that I thought I’d seen during my studies and luckily the company was hiring. Originally I was hoping to apply for the Swiss office, since it’s closer to home. But they decided to consolidate the offices and they closed the Swiss office and moved to Tokyo. That happened around a month after I joined. So I just joined the Tokyo office directly.
Rohit: How was your interview? We would like to know a bit about the interaction.
Michael: Yeah, it’s a multi-round process, as we do here at Rapyuta. The hiring manager for this role was Praveen, who is also an Engineering Lead currently at Rapyuta. So originally, I was going to work on applications that run on rapyuta.io, the cloud platform. So the interview process was a typical screening with Praveen. You know, I felt Praveen was extremely serious at first, even when I joined the company. But then when I joined, I realized he’s a giant joker! So he was good to me in interviews, very professional with me. So the screening round went okay. Then after that, I had a technical round where we did some C++ programming, you know, basic algorithms and data structure stuff and some probabilistic questions that she asked me. And after that, I had two more interviews.
I had one with the engineering manager at that time, we discussed topics about my background and focused more on the digital signal processing stuff I did in the past and the digital communication, things like that. And I spoke first on my projects and then we focused mainly on my electronics background. Again, more technical questions to that nature, academic at that point in time since I was a fresh graduate.
After that, I had to give a presentation to the company. So the task assigned to me was, could you design a cloud robotics platform? And that was the only information that I was given. So taking that, I kind of proposed an architecture that I thought would be suitable. I made a quick presentation, you know, five or ten slides with the different components and what their responsibilities were. I think most of the (engineers from the) company joined, when I gave the presentation. I was questioned on some of my design choices and why I’ve chosen this particular architecture, how did I find out about it etc.
I had the final interview with Gajan, one of the co-founders. Not really an interview, more of a just a conversation where he made sure I knew what I was getting into. We discussed the culture, my salary expectations and if I was serious about coming here into the company. And then I got the offer a few days later. Now, this whole process took around eight days. So it was a rapid process for me, which is good, and I think also good for the company.
Rohit: So you have been with Rapyuta for almost two and a half years. Generally speaking, you must have a very good understanding of the problems the robotics industry is facing. So, my question would be, which are the top 2-3 problems Robotics is facing right now?
Michael: I see. The toughest problems for me, it’s not really an engineering-related problem, although you could potentially picture it that way. It’s really the commercialization of robotics technology and making it available to mass market and to consumers.
A lot of these robotics companies only exist in the lab. And yes, there are some applications where robots are common, in particular in factories and warehouses. We also do see some consumer applications with drones, etc. and also the robotic assistants like vacuum cleaners. But there is a lot more robots can do and we can do that in R&D labs or in universities. But really to commercialize it such that selling robots is a viable solution for a company to do. So for me, the commercialization of the technology is difficult for most people to execute. That’s one problem I see in the industry at the moment.
The next problem I see is, as I mentioned before, robotics is multidisciplinary, so you need to have a lot of different people who are specialized and get them working together. It’s really difficult to find people like this. You know, we talk about guys that have PhDs and Masters’ degrees from top universities in mechanical engineering, electrical engineering. We need to bring these guys in and have them work on these tough problems together. And really, it’s as I mentioned, it’s the cutting edge of each of these domains. Look, for example, from a mechanical engineering aspect, some of these robots are literally pushing the envelope of what mechanical engineering can currently do. Same for control systems and the same for AI and things like that. It’s just getting experts who can come in and work together is difficult.
So for the robotics industry as a whole, I feel there is kind of like a talent shortage. So I would recommend any young engineer to consider a career in the robotics industry because there’s a lot of opportunities available in the current market. So, yeah, those are the two big problems for me.
Rohit: What has been your toughest, or one major problem you solved, which made you happy or feel accomplished?
Michael: So as an individual and as an engineer, the most difficult problem I worked on was a video streaming solution for drones.
So the drone would be flying somewhere, the user would be remotely controlling it and the video would be streamed from the drone to the controller and then over the Internet to a web browser. And so people in a remote location could view the drone stream in real time. This is something that has been done before. But typically, there is a large delay in the order of five to ten seconds or so, whereas the solution that we developed here used commercial drones that were off the shelf. So we didn’t have to buy any specialised technology. And we achieved sub one second latency. So it is near real time, what you were seeing as opposed to being delayed. So streaming such a large amount of data from a remote location, from a drone that’s flying in the air. Typically, drones are used in applications such as search and rescue or maintenance, for example, monitoring dams or monitoring pipelines for leaks. These aren’t exactly a controlled environment.
They’re hostile environments and to reliably stream video data from that location to the cloud and onwards to the users browser was quite a difficult engineering problem.
Rohit: Coming back to your inspiration, do you think any engineers or technologists which you really inspire you, from past or current? People you look up to or you are in touch with them?
Michael: You know, like I do appreciate the invention side of engineering. So I tend to be inspired by people who try things, experiment, and invent things. Particularly historically, there is a set of particular developments in technology that inspire me like the development of television. I think it’s quite an inspiring moment considering a lot of the work that was done there is purely experimental. So a lot of these early pioneers in television, such as Philo Farnsworth or John Logie Baird, they really discovered and invented by just trying things out in the lab. But they also managed to solve the other problem that I mentioned, which is commercialising the technology. They started a company where they sold their inventions. Not only were they in the lab tinkering and developing and exploring, but they actually made the product at the end of the day that they sold to a mass market and were successful. So not only were they competent engineers, but they were competent businessmen too, which I think is impressive. So what we can learn from them is I feel that having a curiosity to discover is valuable for engineers. You’re solving novel problems most of the time. And for that, you need to have an inquisitive mind into what you’re doing. Furthermore, I also feel that lots of engineers could benefit from being a bit more hands on and actually creating commercial things rather than just developing things in a lab. Having something working robustly in most environments is something that we should strive to achieve. It shouldn’t just work once. It should work every time, all of the time. And this is how things can be achieved.
And finally, I also think a lot of engineers don’t really consider the business aspect. They’re more interested just in the technology, which is fair. I think you could learn from some of these successful engineer businessmen on how to commercialise your product. An contemporary example of this would be someone like James Dyson, who did some experimentation, came up with a product, but then managed to market it. So there are modern people who’ve managed to achieve this, too.
Rohit: About the debate which usually goes on in Technology and Humanities circles. Most of the inventions in Technology came up with very good intentions. So the argument is engineers are responsible for invention and not the application. What is your outlook on that and what do you think is the role engineers have to play in coming decades?
Michael: Yes. It’s an in-depth topic which caused a lot of debate, particularly recently. But generally, I feel most professions should be held to an ethical standard and engineers are not exceptional in that regard. I do think software engineering is a bit new in terms of historical development. It’s still rather immature. It hasn’t really standardised yet as much as traditional engineering. So the standard boards and ethics committees, you won’t find in a software company that you would find in a more traditional company.
Going into the real core of the detail, if you compare engineers to doctors, doctors swear the Hippocratic Oath not to harm their patients and always do what’s best for them. I think engineers could adopt something similar where they really considered the impact of what they’re creating. So I do think in the current modern situation, a lot of people are conscious of this fact. I know a lot of engineers who won’t work in the defense industry, for example, or in any industry that could be used for war.
So, for example, things like, you know, like the space industry has like rockets, but rockets are very similar to missiles. So a lot of people I know wouldn’t want to work on that because they feel even if they have good intentions and they make something benign, it can be re-appropriated for more malevolent purposes. I also think as an engineer, if you create something and it’s used for ethical or good purposes, it will give you a more sense of achievement in life if you’re more connected to what you’re creating and what you’re creating is good.
So, I definitely agree that engineers should have a bit of responsibility and what their talents are getting used for it, and if they really question the products of their work, I feel that it will be good for humanity as a whole, for people to care about the impacts of what they’re doing. And this is a topic that rages on.
Robotics, in particular, occupies a special place because we see a lot of debate currently about using robots for war or using robots to kill people in war zones. And I remember several years ago there is, I think, some type of terrorist situation in the States and they actually used a robot to deliver a bomb and kill the terrorist. And that was really one of the first instances of a being used by police to kill someone deliberately. But we also see this in warzone situations where we have things like drones who are autonomously deciding to bomb targets. Obviously engineers have worked on that and they may have philosophical or moral objections to war as a whole and the impact it has. But I really do think that if more engineers take this seriously and and really channeled their efforts towards other domains, such as renewable energy or medicine, we as humans could probably have progressed along the better path than what we’re currently doing.
Rohit: Next question, Michael. There are a lot of engineers who are thinking of working in robotics. So one thing which comes to my mind is basically they might wonder what drives robotics, what is the technology stack or does it require them to learn new languages. So I want to hear from you in terms of what you would like to say, to budding engineers.
Michael: I think the most important thing is to be really solid on the fundamentals of general engineering practices. So have a sound foundation in mathematics, linear algebra, and these really form the bedrock of certain aspects of robotics. But as discussed before, you know, it’s multidisciplinary. So the path for a mechanical engineer is different from an electrical engineer. As Rapyuta focuses on software mainly, that’s what I will discuss in this answer. For an aspiring software engineer who would like to break into the robotics domain, I think in particular, not so much specific technologies, but general concepts are worth researching, such as computer vision and perception. Also, topics such as digital signal processing are commonly used. Further to that, there are a lot of AI concepts that are explored in robotics and things like machine learning. Of course, but really, again, it’s being strong in the fundamentals and having a broad general background. It’s good because you’re going to be interacting with different types of engineers from a different background and trying to merge all these things together into one. So I don’t really want to mention specific tools and technologies because the industry moves fast. What’s common today wasn’t common five years ago. So if someone is just starting a degree or getting into the industry, if they start focusing on some tool, it can move on to something else in the future.
Libraries change. Tools change. Technologies change. The fundamentals don’t change. So it’s good to be strong on those. And I think this applies to not only the robotics industry, but in any career you aspire to.
Rohit:That’s quite helpful! What really inspires you? Particularly in robotics, because I see that it requires a lot more patience and grit compared to other industries when we are solving problems, especially that this industry is really ingenious.
Michael: I see. So for me, it’s really a desire to create something. To see what I’ve learned and my knowledge and my training and apply that in a physical domain and really create and achieve something. To be more specific, as I mentioned before, I do like to work with physical things like robots or circuit boards, for example. So this job in particular gives me the opportunity to be hands on and to design things from the ground up and really take a holistic approach and consider every aspect of these robotic systems that I’m working on.
I’m not going to work on a tiny part of a large system. I can really explore and work on really any part of the systems that I’m developing at the moment. So I have a lot of freedom to operate, which is good. I have a lot of freedom to create, which is good. But I also do genuinely believe that these systems that we develop here at Rapyuta Robotics, are beneficial for society as a whole.
In particular, I work on Warehouse Automation Systems that puts robots into warehouses, but these robots don’t replace workers. They enhance the workers productivity and it frees the worker up to work on more high value tasks. The robots take over the menial labor. For example, my team works with robots which transport parcels around the warehouse. And some of the other teams, the robots do menial tasks like sorting parcels or picking parcels up and moving them. You know people used to do this before, but I think it’s better for people to work on more creative tasks that require human thinking. So we are automating these things with robots. The workers in these warehouses, you know, can work on more creative tasks and have a bigger impact in terms of their job role. So for me, there is another reason that I came to wake up every morning and come in here is because I do believe at the end of the tunnel we’ll have something that is genuinely beneficial to the people who use it.
But this is the same for robotics as a whole. For the consumer products I mentioned before. It’s the same story. You know, they’re automating menial tasks. For example, Roomba, which vacuums the floor. People don’t have to spend 20 minutes a day doing this and can work on other things, other things that robots can’t do more or better tasks. And I think as the industry grows and the technology develops, we’ll be able to do more things of that nature. We’ll be able to care for elderly people. We’ll be able to transport goods, have a robotic assistant who can carry things for you. And these things are generally beneficial for society as a whole and you’re tying into what I mentioned before about the ethical consideration of engineers’ work. I think at the end of a robotics career, working on these types of systems, you can look back and see you’ve had an impact on a lot of people’s lives and made things easier for them, and like them to focus on what they want to focus on and not what they have to focus on to get by.
Rohit: Last few questions. Small ones. So what’s your favorite book, movie and drink?
Michael: That’s a good question. So my favorite drink generally is whisky, particularly whisky is a Scottish vice because I’m from Scotland. I prefer more of the maritime flavored ones. You know, ones that come from a distillery near the coast. So, yeah, definitely. Whisky is my favorite drink.
In terms of my favorite film, it changes week to week, you know, so very hard to name one.
But I think that in the past five years or so the most interesting film is Ex-Machina, where a CEO of a company who creates a robot and invites one of its employees to come in to play the Turing test. I think it is a good film. It has a lot of concerns about what the future of robotics can take. For someone who works in the robotics field, it makes me think. So I think at least in the past five years, that’s probably one of the better films that came out for me.
In terms of books, it’s a similar story. You know, I read a lot of non-fiction books. I read a lot of philosophy and history. So in terms of that, favorite fiction, because I have to say, you know, I live in Japan, so I’ve been reading a lot of Japanese literature recently. And I think an interesting period of time was in the 1920s Japan, when they had a young democracy before the military took over. So in that particular period, lots of nice books were published that show the merging of Western and Japanese history for the first time. So I like that particular era. One of the books that was written I’d recommend would be the English translation of Chijin no Ai, which means A Fool’s Love. I’ve read that recently, if you ask me this question in seven days time you will get a different answer!
Rohit: That’s it Michael. Thank you for your time and we hope a lot more engineers hear you and be part of your tribe!
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- What we develop here at Rapyuta Robotics, is beneficial for society as a whole – Michael Orr