The unique aspect of Gecko Robotics is that we are an industrial inspections company mated with a software and hardware product development company; allowing us to take what we learn from our customers in the field back into our labs to iterate old techniques into new solutions. This heavily relies on having powerhouse operations and engineering teams. Luckily, Gecko is equipped with some of the best and brightest talents in the industry. In a series of blogs, we’ll introduce you to some of our amazing engineers, data scientists, and operators. You’ll learn what excites them to bring the best products to the world of NDE/NDT and reliability.
Alex Cuti: Tech Lead - Base Station
Today, we met with Alex Cuti, a mechanical engineer from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who joined the team in the summer of 2018. Apart from building robots for Gecko, he recently competed in the well-known BattleBots competition aired on the Discovery Channel. We talk to him about all things robots!
Gecko: Alex, can you start by describing your position at Gecko?
Alex: I'm a mechanical engineer, here, at Gecko Robotics; and I'm the tech lead for the base station team.
Gecko: Base Station; can you talk more about what that is?
Alex: The base station encompasses all the products and systems that support the robot, and enable the mobile platform to perform an inspection. It's a mix of both mechanical design and part design, but a lot of interacting and working with other electrical engineers and operators.
Gecko: Very cool! So building robots has been a passion of yours. Can you tell us your “origin” story as it pertains to robot building? What ignited this passion?
Alex: My role model for engineering was definitely my dad. Growing up, he was always in the basement and working on various projects that I helped with. Actually, my dad was the one that got me a Lego Mindstorm kit in elementary school. That was when I was really able to start kind of tinkering with robots.
Gecko: So you’ve previously competed in robot building as an amateur in the FIRST Robotics program in high school; would you say you’re a professional now with BattleBots under your belt?
Alex: Yes! This was our first season on BattleBots and honestly, I didn't really have expectations. I’d been building robots for the past twelve years at this point and wasn't planning on stopping. In BattleBots, you get to take your team's design and compete with it against other teams; and this really validated what RoboGym had been working on.
The first “battle bot” I built was, well, it was my super senior year of college. The robotics club at the University of Illinois had recently started a BattleBots style competition called RoboBrawl. I had a bunch of friends that had been competing there. So it sounded like a good challenge to take on.
Gecko: Could you tell us more about your BattleBots experience?
Alex: We had actually competed against a lot of the same competitors at various tournaments before. Once you're actually at the competition, it's pretty intense because, you know, it's a high energy environment where a lot can go wrong really quickly, and you need to be able to fix things and troubleshoot things often with limited resources.
We decided to go with a lifter we called Deadlift. You get the pun, right? We wanted to go with a design that was capable against all the other variants in BattleBots - less fragile, less of a glass cannon as those other designs tend to be, and just really allow for good control showing off driver talents - not really having a real weakness.
Being on the BattleBots season was just like a dream come true. I mean, all of us on the RoboGym team, you know, had been watching BattleBots and Robot Wars when we were little kids. And, finally having a chance to be on the show and compete was just awesome.
There's just something so satisfying about taking an idea and turning it into a real physical product. I think the moment that really hit all of us was walking into our first fight and seeing the arena all set up with all the other teams and the crowds. Just actually living that experience was pretty incredible.
The best part was definitely interacting with the other teams that were there. Everyone in BattleBots is super friendly; love to talk about their own robots and talk about robots with you. Just being able to check out all the other robots, talk to the teams, and keep in touch.
Gecko: While BattleBot’s are designed to destroy, Gecko’s robots need to protect the world’s most critical infrastructure. Are there any aspects that translate over to your day job?
Alex: There's so many, honestly. The design process is similar, although condensed. It's evaluating, working quickly through a design process, allocating tasks to various people, and collaborating for the final result.
Gecko: Biggest challenge?
Alex: Budgeting the build, staying to a strict timeline, working with suppliers as we shopped out a lot of our parts working through the often frustrating integration phase, getting everything to run together. We might run into a bit more problems than we were expecting as it goes.
Gecko: To a budding engineer that's trying to get into robotics, what is your recommendation?
Alex: I'd really recommend trying to get as much hands-on experience, outside the classroom, as much as possible - just really trying to seek out, you know, the best internships and co-op opportunities. All that practical experience, in addition to getting the core fundamentals from all your classes, all really contributes to developing a much larger base of knowledge and having a lot more practical experience.
Gecko: We’re really glad you’ve invested so much time into robot building because it contributes to better solutions, having solved similar problems time and again. Do you have any final thoughts?
Alex: Yeah! One of the phrases I engineer by is “the only real mistake is the one from which you’ve learned nothing”. Because, in engineering, you're going to make failures. That's just how it is. But, you have to learn from each of those failures and mistakes and apply those lessons and your learnings to future problems.
Gecko: Alex, those are truly words to engineer by. Thanks for spending time with us and best of luck in your next BattleBots competition!