How This Robotics Engineer Hacks Getting into the ‘Zone’

An interview with an engineer at Piaggio Fast Forward on what helps kick-start his work.

Written by Taylor Rose
Published on Dec. 04, 2023
How This Robotics Engineer Hacks Getting into the ‘Zone’
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One of the hardest parts about getting a robot out the door is literally getting it through the door. 

Doorways were one of the biggest challenges that the engineers at Piaggio Fast Forward faced when they were designing an autonomous robot. The robot, called “gita,” looks like a rounded box on wheels with a hollow interior that is meant to be a carrying compartment. The gita can trail behind someone on its own without being attached to a phone or device. The problem for the engineers was how to tell the robot to go through a door while the owner holds it open. 

Oddly enough there wasn’t a lot of research out there on how two people walk through doorways — so the Boston-based team had to leave the office and go observe how people entered and exited the shops around them. That wasn’t quite enough, so the team brought in 24 people whom they asked to open, walk through and close doors over 2,000 times. 

After compiling the data, the engineers at Piaggio Fast Forward were able to code a way for the robot to know when exactly to pause, see a door being opened, roll through the doorway, wait for the owner to also walk through, re-pair itself with the owner, then continue following behind them. 

Some might see the challenge of getting through a doorway as a bit mundane, but as the field of robotics expands it’s the small movements and details that will eventually integrate this tech seamlessly into daily life. 

Taking on problems like this requires robotics engineers to think creatively and build with precision. Built In spoke with Robotics Software Engineer Milan Shah about how he takes on onerous projects.  

 

Milan Shah
Robotics Software Engineer • Piaggio Fast Forward

 

What kind of environment brings out your best work? 

I have noticed that I do my best work whenever the problem on hand is interesting. Of course, that may not be the case all the time. However, I have been fortunate enough to get to work on some complex yet interesting projects.

My peak creative hours are typically in the mornings and late afternoons. This is when my mind is most receptive to complex problem-solving. I leverage these hours to dive into intricate papers and theories, develop algorithms or improve software architectures.

 

Do you typically work in the office or from home? 

I’m a robotics software engineer and, contrary to popular opinion, I often like to work from the office. For me, it makes collaboration easy and faster. It also gives me a unique opportunity to interact with other teams and get to understand our robots beyond the software. 

 

WHAT DOES PIAGGIO FAST FORWARD DO? 

Piaggio Fast Forward  is a technology and design company that was established in 2015 by the Piaggio Group. The engineering team at Piaggio Fast Forward creates robotics that are intended to assist with mobility for people and goods. Right now, the company’s main product is a small cargo robot called “gita” that trails behind an owner and can carry up to 40 pounds.

 

At Piaggio Fast Forward, I’m part of different clubs. I am in the running group, where we go for short runs after work. I am part of a food group where you make different dishes and flex your cooking skills. I am also a part of the soccer club. As you can imagine, you cannot have such camaraderie while working from home.

 

What advice would you give an engineer who might be struggling to produce their best work?

Always ask questions. If you are developing something, especially the software, don’t just follow the pre-established process. Understand what’s going on under the hood; understand why it works like that and then try to improve it. Of course, given the project deadlines and priorities, there has to be a balance. In my opinion, you learn to keep that balance as you gain more and more experience.

 

What helps you take on challenges in your work? 

Developing a software algorithm is one thing but developing an optimized algorithm so that it can run smoothly on the resource-constrained embedded system of a robot is a whole other thing. Having curiosity and a deeper understanding of programming concepts and languages always helps.

Platforms like Stack Overflow and GitHub forums of certain libraries have been invaluable. They offer deeper insights, solutions to complicated issues, and the experience of other engineers. Remember that quote from Eleanor Roosevelt: “Learn from the mistakes of others. You can't live long enough to make them all yourself.” So, don’t just passively use those platforms. Instead, actively leverage them. If you have a question, ask it; if you know the answer, post it; if you can improve the existing posts, do it.

If you have a question, ask it; if you know the answer, post it; if you can improve the existing posts, do it.”

 

Do you have rituals, tools or methods that help you access a creative mindset?

I don’t have any specific rituals, but the following tools and techniques help me a lot: 

My workspace setup is an important tool for me. I wouldn’t say my workspace is completely clutter-free and minimal. I have multiple sticky notes with some useful notes, formulas and to-dos. For me, it’s the fastest way to access certain important — but not important enough to occupy mental space — information that I need frequently. 

Having at least two monitors is a must for me. It makes my life easier to access the terminal, code editor and browser window at once. Last but not least is a standing desk. A perfect excuse for some exercise while coding.

I use the pomodoro technique, which is a time management method based on 25-minute stretches of focused work broken up by five-minute breaks. It helps me avoid distractions and promotes sustained concentration and less mental fatigue.

 

Read MoreUnder the hood: 3 Boston engineers share how they chose their tech stacks

 

 

Responses have been edited for length and clarity. Images provided by Shutterstock and listed companies.

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