Personalities of IAM Robotics: Meet Yash Manian

By August 26, 2019March 30th, 2021No Comments

Computer Vision Engineer

Portrait of Yash Manian, Computer Vision Engineer at IAM Robotics.

We are  excited at IAM Robotics to be at the forefront of the autonomous robot revolution. We are transforming e-commerce fulfillment centers by fully automating order picking and retrieval in warehouses designed for human labor. We’re the first company in history that has succeeded in doing this, and we’re going to do more. We are able to do this because we have some of the most innovative professionals in the robotics industry on our team, who have come to IAM Robotics from a variety of backgrounds. We are who we are because of our people. We would like you to meet Yash Manian…

Growing up in India, which does not have a strong robotics industry, Yash taught himself how to build electronics – and eventually robots – as a teenager. Once a student at the University of Mumbai, Yash became involved with Robocon, leading a team to 6th place in the country, and cementing his desire to pursue robotics as a career. 

As a graduate student at the University of Maryland, Yash had the opportunity to work with Sarah Bergbreiter in the Microrobotics Lab before deciding on his specialization as a Computer Vision Engineer and beginning his career with IAM Robotics. We had the opportunity to talk with Yash recently about his path to a career in robotics, and what he thinks the future holds for the industry. 

What led you down the path to engineering when you were younger?
My parents are both scientists, and I spent a lot of time in my mother’s lab growing up. While this exposed me to science from a very young age, it wasn’t until I watched Iron Man as a teenager that my interest in engineering was really piqued. I was fascinated by the idea that Tony Stark used principles of science and engineering to escape captivity.

This new-found interest prompted me to take apart my computer, however, I quickly realized that I didn’t know how to put it back together. I set about teaching myself, and finally did get it put together and working … somewhat. I then proceeded to teach myself to build audio amplifiers, building AVR microcontroller boards, and finally robots after stumbling upon the Society of Robots a series of tutorials on building robots by CMU alum John Palmisano. I would typically save up pocket money from my parents to go buy parts from Mumbai’s electronics market to build my robots.

By the time I was 17, I was convinced I wanted to pursue engineering (and building robots) as a profession and decided to go to college for Electronics Engineering.

What is the coolest project you worked on or contributed to prior to joining IAM Robotics? 
There are too many to choose from. Some of the most technically challenging projects I worked on happened in grad school, however the project that influenced me the most was from when I was still an undergrad.

The team for Robocon 2015, where the problem statement called for developing robots that could play badminton on an Olympic-size court.

As an undergrad, I founded and led a robotics team to participate in the Asia Pacific robotics contest, Robocon 2015 and 2016, that ultimately placed 6th in the country out of 120 teams in 2016. This required us to build two robots that would play badminton in a fullsized badminton court against two robots from a competing college team. 

This was thrilling because of the sheer scale of the problem statement. It required technical expertise in mechanical design, electrical design, controls and a variety of fabrication techniques, not counting the logistics and management skills required for things to function smoothly. The problem was also ridiculous enough that we had a lot of fun working on it.

The coolest thing about this project though, was the team I was working with. Robotics is a multidisciplinary field, which is why the team that’s working on a problem with you is absolutely critical.

Looking back now, the robots we built weren’t that technically impressive (think a mechanically over-designed omni-wheel robot with a basic PID control loop, no perception to speak of and waving around a bunch of badminton rackets), but I like to think the experience shaped my approach to robotics in general and laid the foundations for working on other robotics teams, including IAM Robotics.

Robocon 2016
The team for Robocon 2016, where the problem statement called for building robots that used renewable sources of energy for locomotion.

What motivates you?

Car built for the 2014 SAE BAJA India, which is an ATV design competition.

Is being on the good side of our soon-to-be robot overlords, not motivation enough?

I’ve found that in some ways, I’m basically an overgrown child. A new problem or a fancy new concept basically evoke the same reactions in my brain that six-year-old Yash felt when a new action figure arrived at the store. Except now my toys are a lot more fun. While I feel like I will never learn enough, I began to feel like a real roboticist when I created a photophobe robot and it didn’t commit robosuicide.

Over the last 8 years or so, I’ve always felt that a well-designed machine or a well thought out algorithm seems akin to magic when you look at them in operation. A robot is essentially an amalgamation of mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, and computer science, with some really fancy math as the basis of these systems. If I take a moment to look at a robot with all its subsystems working in unison to fulfill a singular purpose, it’s enough to make my toes curl with excitement.

But what really enthralls me is the fact that it is not magic at all. There is an insane amount of effort that goes into just making sure that your robot doesn’t commit suicide by driving into a wall. The incremental effort everyone on the team puts into building a robot that does its job efficiently and the sheer complexity of the problem that is being solved here is enough to keep me entertained for a long, long time.

Preparing the robot prior to Robocon 2015.

What is your go-to spot in Pittsburgh? 

I’m still working on getting a driver’s license, so a fair part of the city remains unexplored. However, one of my favorite places to spend a Friday evening is Mixtape on Penn Ave.

I also seem to spend a ridiculous amount of time grocery shopping, so make of that what you will.

What is your favorite travel spot?

I really enjoy Washington DC, probably because that is where I spent my graduate school years at the University of Maryland.

Washington, DC is a short metro ride away from College Park, so over time I got pretty attached to it. Walking around the National Mall in fall is one of the best stress relievers I know of. 

And DC has a number of free museums. How could I ever get bored?

What are some projects you worked on at the University of Maryland? 

At the University of Maryland, I had the opportunity to work with Dr. Sarah Bergbreiter who ran the MicroRobotics lab at UMD. In my second semester at UMD, I went to her and asked for a project to work on, which led to me working on developing instrumentation for compliant strain sensors which were being used to detect strain in airplane wings. 

I was then offered a paid internship for the summer, where I worked on compliant airflow sensors to detect groundeffect in quadrotors, which led me to co-author a paper at ICRA 2017. Later I ended up working as a research assistant for Sarah, working on characterizing mechanoluminescent elastomers and developing sensorimotor control loops based on rat whisker sensors.During my second year at UMD, I also worked with Dr. Yiannis Aloimonos on an independent study, working on vision based odometry for drones. This along with all the computer vision classes I took, cemented my interest in Computer vision, which I decided to pursue after graduating.

Please provide a quote (original or borrowed) that is a reflection of your personality. 

“While human evolution was crawling at its usual snail’s pace, the human imagination was building astounding networks of mass cooperation, unlike any other ever seen on earth.” Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens

What is your favorite part about working for IAM Robotics? 

The fact that my coworkers are as excited about what they do as I am. That sort of enthusiasm is truly infectious. That and the fact that I work with world-class roboticists who each have more than a decade of experience that I can siphon off of. 

I’ve also grown to appreciate my bones vibrating and ears ringing whenever a train passes by our current office. 

What do you think the future has in store for robotics?

It’s a little hard to say. 

Technology-wise, I’m sure we’ll have robots that are more versatile and reliable than they are now. More efficient ways of localization and mapping, along with superior vision-based control will develop with time. I’m personally a fan of modular robots that can swap out parts and software to better adapt to a specific environment.

I am certain that there is going to be something of a robotics revolution where we have great advances in production, medicine and general standards of living. As for the far-reaching social, economic and political consequences this will have, I am still unsure.

But I’m happy that I get to watch it all unfold and hopefully, I get to have a hand in shaping the outcome. 

Thank you, Yash, for taking the time to share your unique path to IAM Robotics – we would not be leading the way in robotics without team members like Yash who are passionate about their work, and committed to making a difference in the future of robotics.  And we are just getting warmed up.