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Exploring Robotics: A Career Journey from Academia to Industry

Exploring Robotics: A Career Journey from Academia to Industry


Adwait Gandhe, a graduate from BITS Pilani (Goa ‘12) in the EEE program, currently works at Cruise LLC as a Staff Technical Lead Manager in the Perception team. He previously led the development of the ML-first autonomous mobility stack at Vayu Robotics, an early-stage startup backed by Khosla Ventures. Before that, he spent 6 years at Apple's Special Projects Group, focusing on Autonomous Systems and assuming a generalist role across various teams. Earlier in his career, he worked as a Robotics Engineer at FMC Schilling Robotics, specializing in computer vision and control systems technologies for subsea ROVs and manipulators.

Can you share some pivotal moments or experiences during your time at BITS Goa and Carnegie Mellon University that shaped your career path in robotics and technology?

I joined BITS Goa in 2008 in the EEE program, but I always wanted to explore some interdisciplinary areas between the traditional EEE, Mechanical and CS departments. For me, the best part of joining BITS was the large flexibility afforded to students to pursue their interests and not be limited to the program you are admitted to. I was fortunate to work with faculty from the Physics, EEE and CS departments while on campus. At the time, my primary interest was in Computer Vision and application to robotics, and I was able to get good exposure to that via the PS1 summer internship at Cameo Media Labs in Pune, and then a bachelor thesis at Fraunhofer Institute in Darmstadt, Germany. The other very important factor for me was my peer group. BITS has a very high bar for admission and I was surrounded by very driven people who have all gone on to do well in their respective careers.

I joined the masters program in Robotics Systems Development at CMU, considered one of the best schools for robotics, where my interests grew in applying Computer Vision and AI - ML methods to field robots. In addition to coursework, I was required to pursue a 6 month internship. I joined FMC Schilling Robotics (now TechnipFMC) as an intern and later as a full time employee, building underwater robots that were used primarily for subsea oil activities. The experience to build robots and deploy them in the real world was very enriching and has shaped my career path building robotics products ground up in challenging areas.

How did your transition from academia to the industry influence your perspective on robotics and entrepreneurship?

I transitioned to industry in 2013, first as an intern and then taking on full time roles. At the time, robotics was an upcoming field but still had limited applications in the real world. Fast forward to today and the field has exploded thanks to many advances in Machine Learning, AI, Compute, Data etc. There have also been many examples of Venture Capital support for robotics companies.

I think the transition to industry for me was very important, as it gave me the experience and confidence of building a product ground up. I do think that it is important to be close to academia if you have entrepreneurial ambitions, a lot of the cutting edge research comes out of academia. But building a company is all about building products that need to work in the real world, with your customers, and working in the industry is important to learn that engineering rigor.

What are some key trends you've observed in the tech sector, particularly in robotics, over the years?

I think the last ~10 years have been wonderful for the field of robotics. Robotics is a multidisciplinary field, and it has benefited from large improvements in multiple areas. The most popular example today would be Artificial Intelligence. Enhancements in Machine Learning and AI, means we can now develop smarter robotic systems that can reason and interact to some extent. The other trend would be computers. Robots require an on board computer which continues to grow powerful, energy efficient and cheaper. Finally, there has been a strong desire from the Venture Capital community to back robotics startups. The startup that I joined as a Founding Engineer - Vayu Robotics is one such example - the company focused on developing end to end ML based systems for last mile delivery, and is backed by top tier VCs.

How do you see the role of robotics evolving in various industries, and what opportunities do you foresee for aspiring entrepreneurs?

I think the key lesson for any entrepreneur is to identify a problem that needs to be solved. That part has not changed. What has changed with the recent advancements in the field is that new methods that were not feasible before can be developed in an economically sustainable manner. Developing a robotic system from the ground up is getting more and more easier, and applying developments of AI to robotics is the norm nowadays. Computers developed specifically for robotics applications are readily available and designed to work with a large number of sensors and actuators. This creates a lot of opportunities for aspiring entrepreneurs. But I think the success of these efforts will come down to a deep knowledge of the problem to be solved, and how the correct data that represents the problem can be sourced, cleaned and used to fine tune the robotics applications to the desired target domain.

What factors guided your decisions to work at both large companies like TechnipFMC and Apple, as well as startups like Vayu Robotics and Cruise?

I think there are pros and cons in both working for large organizations and small companies. In large organizations, you get a chance to work with and learn from industry veterans. Many of my colleagues had spent several decades in their respective careers, and working closely with them was a great learning experience. However, large organizations may come with slower career growth, or limited opportunities. After spending about 9 years working for large organizations, I wanted to get some hands-on experience in smaller teams, hence the decision to work in startups. In a startup, you suddenly become one of the more experienced people, and get a chance to apply all the learnings from your own experience. Startups also are often fast paced, and you get to wear many hats, which in turn is great for gaining experience in a diverse set of areas. However, startups are often volatile, and they will affect your general work-life balance. I personally would advise everyone to get some experience in a startup and a large company to really understand what resonates most with them.

What advice would you offer to BITS Students who are considering similar career transitions or exploring opportunities in the tech industry?

One of the best aspects of being a BITSian is the BITS Alumni network. Networking with the community is a great way to gain insights into what is happening around the world, what the exciting opportunities are, and how to successfully apply to and get into those companies of interest.

Other than this, I would advise the students to think about higher education. There are many great higher education opportunities in India and abroad, and having some specialized training in robotics or similar disciplines can be very helpful. Pursuing higher education can also be one way to get exposure to a new geography or a new peer network, both of which can be very helpful in career growth.

Finally, I think it is getting very important to have some real world experience to get access to good job opportunities. Planning early and pursuing internships (via PS1, PS2, Thesis etc.) or projects with faculty members and having a consistent experience in one area can really help land that first job that often sets the tone for an industry career.

Can you share some memorable experiences or challenges you encountered while working on underwater robots, autonomous cars, and last-mile delivery bots?

In my first job at FMC Schilling Robotics, the company developed subsea Remotely Operated Vehicles (ROVs) and hydraulic manipulators attached to these ROVs. The goal was to have a tele-operated robot that is launched from a ship and goes to the bottom of the ocean to support subsea oil installations. Once the bot is designed, developed and built in the factory, it is time to do extensive testing and evaluation of the robot. I got a chance to travel with some of my colleagues for a sea expedition for a few days, termed as “sea trials”. The team took our newly developed robot on a work vessel in the Pacific Ocean where we stayed for a few days to test our newly developed systems, lowering our robot to the surface of the ocean. Conducting experiments on your features in harsh offshore conditions and troubleshooting and fixing them was an amazing experience, and reinforced my interests in working in field robotics.