Rohit Suri: The Prodigious Roboticist
Initially, a clueless fresher, who went on to excel in every field that he stepped into and bring International acclaim for the Institute, Rohit Suri is ‘The Name’ that comes to our mind when we think about Robotics and Automation at NIT Rourkela. An honest leader, a benevolent techie, an all-time foodie, and a humble soul are the qualities that everyone associates this final year student from the Department of Computer Science with. As his friends put it, this calm persona with a gentle smile on his face, a spark in his eyes and an amazing sense of humor, is a great company to be with. From interning at IIT Bombay in his sophomore year to bagging prizes in all robotics events that he participated in, consistently being not only the branch topper but also one of the Institute toppers to interning in Germany with a DAAD-WISE scholarship, getting selected at World’s best Universities such as ETH Zurich, University of Southern California, University of Pennsylvania and University of Michigan for MS to winning the 2nd prize at the Singapore AUV Challenge, the achievements’ list of this genius is endless! Hence, on a sunny Saturday afternoon, Team Monday Morning engaged in a candid conversation with this ‘down-to-earth personality with a head full of dreams’!
Monday Morning (MM): Share with us, your early childhood memories which contributed to shaping the personality you showcase now?
Rohit Suri (RS): I have been born and brought up in Kolkata but my father is from Bathinda, Punjab. I did my schooling from Don Bosco High & Technical School, Liluah till class 10 and later shifted to Adamas International School for integrated JEE coaching in school hours.
One peculiar thing about Don Bosco was that it had the Thursdays off instead of Saturdays. Since both my parents were working, I used to stay alone at home on Thursdays. With due time, I did not mind living solitarily and became independent that way. I happen to share a strong bond with my elder brother I also acted as the successor of his Head Boy position in school which was entitled to me after completion of his tenure.
I had a great inclination towards Art & Craft and consequently, Fevicol bottles became my favorite plaything in early childhood. I used to watch this show called Art Attack and later try to make all those things which sometimes made the surroundings messy but anyway, my parents refilled my fevicol stocks. (grins widely)
MM: How did Computer Science Engineering and NIT Rourkela happen to you?
RS: If I go back in my school days, the answer is that “I struggled in every other subject.”. Being an ICSE student, I learned basic programming in class 9 itself from my brother and later advanced to various stages. Literature had always been my weak point and I was able to score well in Science because I liked the teaching methodologies imparted at my school.
I initially took admission in Electronics and Communication Engineering Department, and later with branch sliding, I joined the Department of CSE. ( Backdrop: A lively discussion tangoed with sarcasm about his CGPA till 2 decimal places and the painstaking hard work, dedication and the midnight oils he’d burn to secure a CG as high as that(again). Apparently, one of his lowest pointers was when his SG dipped to 9.6 (9.65*) last semester!)
MM: How was your experience at NIT Rourkela as a fresher?
RS: Thanks to my school senior, Dipam Chakraborty, under whose guidance I came out of my room shell in the first year and attended the Cyborg orientation, and in no time I got deeply inclined towards Robotics. I have no exhilarating memory about the classes and academics here, but Cyborg has certainly influenced and enhanced my coding skills until the core. My actual journey started with Innovision wherein we were taught coding robots like Line Followers. I still remember the day when my team was getting prepared in the arena and a few seniors of Cyborg with much smaller and wireless bots took over the arena and there I stood, awestruck! Since then, I got motivated and started preparing for Kshitij, Techfest IIT Kharagpur and consequently, four out of five finalist teams, including mine, were teams from NIT Rourkela.
MM: You have received multiple prizes and awards in robotics competitions. Could you elaborate on some of the significant ones?
RS: Out of the competitions I have participated in, the best ones include IIT Bombay December 2015 in which ours was the only bot which was actually able to complete the tasks assigned. IIT Guwahati chapter also happened in September 2015.
In January 2016, we achieved the feat of attaining 3 awards in different competitions at Kshitij. Hence, we accomplished a good year for both, our team and Cyborg.
In 2017, we again went to Kshitij. The first round went on brilliantly and our bot completed the task in 56 seconds in comparison to the average time of 3-4 minutes. The next round went terribly wrong with some camera and coding language issues. Despite this, we got the award of Best Algorithm owing to our performance in the first round.
MM: How and when did you join Tiburon?
RS: I joined Tiburon back in my 4th semester but I had no intention to join the team. I accompanied few of my seniors, who were a part of the team, just because I was free. but on reaching there, the organizers told me not to roam around there since neither was I a team member nor was I taking the exam. So just for fun, I decided to sit for the inductions. It comprised three papers- aptitude, coding and a general robotics test. I feel very “proud” to say that I was the second lowest scorer in the coding test, and if those people had not known me from before, I’d never have been inducted into the team!
MM: What section do you work in Tiburon?
RS: I am presently leading the Coding subsystem of Tiburon. In my 2nd and 3rd year, I was quite active in the sponsorship team but couldn’t do much this year due to other engagements. Primarily in coding, I am involved in all aspects including hardware interfacing, computer vision, and simulation.
MM: Share with us, your experiences at NIOT, Chennai 2016.
RS: The overall experience was herculean! When we had reached Bhubaneshwar and were almost ready to board our trains, we were informed that Tamil Nadu’s CM, Jayalalitha had passed away. So there stood no scope for the competition to be held at that time. We were assured that it will be done in a month or so, and we were alright with it as long as we had the hopes of it to happen. Since the transportation charges were too high, we had disassembled the robot and were carrying it with us. . We returned back to campus, assembled the robot and began testing again. Two days later, we were informed that the competition would be conducted within the next week. Once again bags were packed, the bot was disassembled and hopes raised high.
This time, while we were on our way, we heard that a huge cyclone called Vardhah was going to hit the Chennai coast. To our dismay, it was the time of demonetization and we literally had no money, neither did the banks have any.
Anyway, this time with great difficulty we reached the IIT Madras campus, but the next day we found the campus destroyed with trees down on the road, leftovers as mess food, no electricity or network connection. To our disappointment, two huge trees had fallen into the IIT Madras swimming pool and ultimately the competition happened at a small resort with altogether different specifications of the pool; the arena was set up as U-shaped while we had prepared for a straight one. We managed to complete one of four tasks in time and ultimately bagged the third position!
MM: What all challenges did you face at Singapore AUV championship?
RS: During the summer vacation, the mechanical team did a good job in designing. Back then, there were issues with funds. After some self-funding, the main framework was made but the electronics components weren’t installed. Due to our previous experiences at NIOT, we decided to purchase better cameras and implement the lessons we learned there.
The next hurdle faced was the cancellation of visas of four of our team members including mine, a week before the competition. All visas got approved eventually. Our travel was self-sponsored. In addition, we had to buy new batteries because of the transportation rules by the airlines. But overall, in many instances, the entire NITRAA Singapore chapter helped us a lot and we would like to thank them for their contribution.
MM: How was your overall experience in the championship?
RS: The first two days didn’t go well. A few components were damaged during the transportation, and it took us several hours to fix them. During testing, we faced several issues again. We pulled an all-nighter and tried to figure out the disparities and coordinated as a team in the best possible way. To our horror, the next day again, our vehicle crashed back and forth onto the wall and somehow we managed to prevent our team from direct disqualification. In the qualification round, we got the 14th position, but in the finals, our vehicle did pretty well, and it’s said rightly that all is well that ends well! (smiles)
MM: Can you brief us about the Eklavya internship at IIT Bombay that you pursued in your sophomore year?
RS: This internship, in general, doesn’t focus on any particular area. Once you get selected, you are divided into various groups and after that, each team functions independently since they have their own projects. So the group that I was a part of was called FOSSEE (Free and Open Source Software in Education). I was working on the Computer Vision Toolbox of Scilab (Scilab is an open source software that is an alternative to Matlab). I made a couple of friends there who taught me how to approach research in Computer Vision. So that is one of the major benefits that I gained during my period of internship at IIT Bombay. Apart from that, the food was really good in the mess. (chuckles)
MM: You interned at the University of Freiburg, Germany in the summer of 2017. How was your overall experience there?
RS: I followed the standard DAAD procedure. The mailing procedure was cumbersome like all foreign internships but I was able to get an acceptance. The stipend that I received was not sufficient and I had shell out money from my own pocket. I used to get 650 Euros per month as a stipend and I received 525 Euros as travel grant. There was a problem again with my visa and hence I had to rebook the tickets that cost me a lot more. Also, the city of Freiburg has a lot of students thereby making the accommodation scenario quite terrible. In fact, I had to write more emails for accommodation than I had to do for DAAD! Finally, I got a student’s residence that was unexpectedly overpriced. Usually, students who stayed in the Northern and Eastern Germany had to pay around 200 Euros per month, whereas, I had to pay 437 Euros per month. Fortunately, DAAD has increased the stipend from this year.
My experience was good because I got connected with Prof. Dr. Wolfram Burgard who is renowned in the field of Robotics. His research lab is undoubtedly one of the best in the world and one of my favorite moments were my interactions with the doctoral students of the lab. The task that I was assigned involved mechanical design and fabrication during the first phase, something which really isn’t my strong suit. I got relatively less time to work on algorithms than I had expected because the entire setup was not ready until July. In the end, though I was able to produce results, I believe it would have been better if I had more time in my hand.
MM: What was the domain that you worked upon during your internship in Germany?
RS: My project was called Laser Camera Calibration for Semantic Segmentation. Semantic segmentation is an essential task that enables autonomous vehicles to understand the elements of a scene. In recent times, machine learning has achieved unprecedented performance on various semantic segmentation tasks. However, one of the caveats is still the requirement of a large amount of training data. Hand labelling thin structures such as poles and trees can be very taxing. In this project, high precision 3D information obtained from LiDARs was used to segment these structures and facilitate the transfer of labels from the laser domain to the image domain. These labels can then be used for training deep convolutional neural networks for the task of semantic segmentation.
Picture Above: The Project that Rohit worked upon at the University of Freiburg, Germany, i.e, the mount on the car.
MM: You have always excelled in academics. You have consistently been the branch topper of your batch. How did you manage to get such consistency in your performance and CGPA?
RS: I certainly have no idea how that happens. Anybody who is close to me since the first year will say that they have not seen me studying other than one week before the exams. So my friends call me seasonal GMAT! (Laughs) However, I try to pay attention in the class as much as I can. Apart from that, I think I have good grasping abilities which serve great help right before the exams.
MM: Your friends say that they can always seek help from you even if you are busy. Also, you are believed to be one of those rare people who keep calm under stressful situations. What helps you in remaining cool in adverse circumstances?
RS: Most of the times if I am either too lazy or busy, I help people by asking them to google it! (grins) Rest of the time, I try to help people as much as I can and that is something everyone should do. Yes, I usually do not get heated up. My friends have rarely seen me angry because I don’t find a reason to be angry with them.
MM: What are the hobbies that you pursue in your leisure time?
RS: Having coffee and then sleeping is something that I have always loved. Seriously I cannot understand how people get all energized immediately after a cup of coffee? If I have to stay awake until late night, I need to drink coffee well in advance because the effect of coffee starts three hours after that. Apart from that, I love eating! Also, I like to code and I used to make a lot of things in my sophomore year. Once I had a lot of spare LEDs and I just kept burning them one by one because it made a really funny noise. (Chuckles) Sometimes, I like listening to music. Moreover, photography is my new-found hobby.
MM: You are a great ‘foodie’! So, what are some of your favorite cuisines?
RS: Everything! I love food. Well, when I was in Singapore, we tried a dish called Mee Siam. I would highly recommend everyone to try that! After tasting that, one would actually cry; not because the food is spicy, but because it is so terrible that you regret you actually paid for it! So by far, that was the most horrible food I have ever had. Other than that, I love eating almost everything. Moreover, stress-eating and stress sleeping are some of the things I do with pleasure.
MM: You have been selected by the University of Michigan, the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Southern California and Eth Zurich for MS. When did you start your preparation for GRE?
RS: I had initially planned to start my preparation during the summer of my third year but I could not do that because of my internship in Germany. I started preparing seriously from August to mid-September. My GRE Exam was just two days before the mid-semester exams. I went to Kolkata on 13 September 2017 but the exam was postponed to 25 September due to some server issue. So I again had to go to Kolkata on 25 September to finally take the exam.
MM: What was the preparation strategy that you followed for GRE? How much time did you devote daily to the exam?
RS: My schedule was as such that I used to come at 4:15 after my classes except on the days when my second half used to be off (which was mostly the case). Then I would start preparing at 6 in the evening and be completely frustrated by 8 after which I would have dinner and go to sleep. At around 11-11:30 pm, my friends, Hardik and Sankalp would wake me up and we used to go to Hall 7 to eat after which I would come and sleep again. So in between this eat, sleep, and repeat, you could say that I spent around 2-3 hours each day preparing for GRE. Nevertheless, I managed to score 330 out of 340 in the examination.
MM: What are some important tips that you would like to share with your juniors who also aspire to achieve such feat?
RS: A word of advice that I would like to give to people aspiring for GRE would be to start early as the preparations can be really frustrating. You may think you’ve memorized the words but then the next morning you would not remember anything. Furthermore starting early would give you time to realize, how long the preparations will take and then plan your pace accordingly. For people who are good with memorizing words, it might take 2 months or less while for others it might even take 6 months. For those having a lot of time on their hands, Barron’s 800 essential words for the GRE is a good option. Personally, the Magoosh app turned out to be of great help during my preparation. But it did not work out for other people I recommended it to. So, I believe one must try all the options available and then decide which preparation methods suit him or her best.
MM: Coming from an English Medium background, why did you decide upon taking TOEFL? How did your TOEFL exam go? What were the preparation procedures you followed?
RS: For some universities, TOEFL is not mandatory if you are from an English background. Yet, having a good TOEFL score increases your chance of getting offered the position of a research assistant or a teaching assistant in the respective universities. Therefore I decided upon sitting for TOEFL.
TOEFL has four sections namely reading, listening, writing and speaking. I was confident about all except the speaking section as it required practice.
My TOEFL paper was scheduled on the 15th of October. On 13th night, I took up the Magoosh app and started preparing only to realize that I was unable to speak for too long. I then called up a senior who was going to take TOEFL along with me. He then gave me some last minute tips and also suggested some tutorials on YouTube. I managed to spend the whole of next day practising for the speaking section and so TOEFL went quite well.
MM: You could have easily got a marvelous job of your choice, given your rock-solid academics and technical skills. However, you decided to go for higher studies and started preparing for GRE while all your friends were getting placed at reputed companies. What gave you the motivation and courage to actually achieve your dreams?
RS: To be honest, I don’t think I would have been selected had I sat for the placements as most companies that came weren’t looking for people with my skills in robotics or computer vision which was the area I had maximum experience in. Moreover, I do not have an in-depth theoretical knowledge or advanced concepts of programming like most people in my batch. Although repeating the dreary task of memorizing words day after day was frustrating, I did not give up. GRE was the only option left for me and this was one of the reasons that kept me going despite the gruesome preparation procedures.
MM: Many people are of the view that saturation has come in the IT sector. What according to you is the prospectus of the Computer Science Department? What are the various career options for the students of the department?
RS: Yes, it is true that saturation has come to some extent but nowadays, most of the jobs are trying to automate things. One of my seniors once told me that, you are either at the automating end or the automated end. If you are at the automating end then, you have a secure job but if you are at the end which can easily be automated then there’s a chance that somebody will create a device or write a piece of code that will replace thousands of people thus rendering them jobless.
I believe algorithm design and development, automation, optimization, computer vision, embedded systems, machine learning, web and app development, and robotics, of course, are some of the fields, the students can opt for. Although the curriculum here is good enough for the visiting companies, it could have been broader to include a number of courses thereby creating more career opportunities for the students.
MM: People perceive you as a respectable and an honest leader. What according to you should be the qualities of a good leader?
RS: According to me, one quality that a good leader should possess would be to lead from the front. Setting an example for your subordinates or juniors will make them respect you and look up to you. Moreover, if you ask them to do something you can’t do, they will obviously not be obligated to it. Furthermore, keeping them motivated is important. A team which is not motivated will never be able to work efficiently. Good communication skills and keeping calm during tough times would be other requisites in a good leader.
MM: Has NITR been able to transform you in any way other than engineering? Who in NITR has been your biggest inspiration?
RS: I have put on a lot of weight and even grown a beard but then again my beard would have grown heavy anyway. I do not think Rourkela’s climate has anything to do with it! (laughs) On a serious note, the most important thing NIT has taught me is how to deal with people which is of utmost importance here as well as in the outside world. Other than that, I have gained a lot of technical skills which would not have been possible without NITR.
Dipam Chakraborty who is my senior has been a mentor to me and is undoubtedly my biggest inspiration, here at NITR.
MM: What are your future career plans and aspirations?
RS: For now, I’m going to pursue Masters. After that, I will mostly take up a job for a couple of years. If I’m satisfied with my job then I will stick to it otherwise I will go for a higher degree.
MM: What according to you is the definition of success?
RS: Thinking about success, two quotes come to my mind, the first would be ‘Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing!’ and second would be ‘The goal is not to live forever but to create something that will.’
MM: What message would you like to give our readers?
Honestly, I don’t have much to say to the students. In these four years, I have always noticed that if you are determined about achieving something, you’ll somehow manage to do it. Lack of funds, however, often holds people back significantly. In this regard, I completely understand that a shortage of funds is something which is faced by every institute and it is not possible to comply with every request or give funds to every project. Though there were many people who helped us a great deal with Team Tiburon, a little more trust from the professors, the alumni and the institute, in general, could boost the research culture prevailing here to a greater extent.