CMU – Dhruv Shah

1114 Views, Posted on: July 15, 2017

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This year we received a record number of submissions and are only able to accept 10% of applications. You are one of the interns we selected. Congratulations!

I was sitting by the Powai lake, 3 hours away from celebrating a year into adulthood (:p), wondering what flavor of cake I would be greeted with as the hour struck when my phone sent out a chime. I had given up hope on getting through, and this was a surprise I wasn’t prepared for. I took my bike and rushed to my room and spent a major chunk of the next hour examining the header of the mail, just to be sure I was not being pranked. This was probably the best way the almighty could have welcomed me to my nineteenth!

Aerial view of the Carnegie Mellon University campus

Hello, there! My name is Dhruv and I am an Electrical Engineering sophomore. The following is a brief narrative of my stint at the Robotics Institute, Carnegie Mellon University this summer.

Pre-intern Chronicles

I was not paid to say this: the journey of my internship started at Nithin Vasisth’s summer blog published by Insight last July (thank you Insight!). I have been closely working with the Mars Society India since my second semester, and this experience kindled my interest in field robotics. For the last two years, my seniors in the Navigation subsystem had been interning at the RI, and I hoped to keep up the legacy after my third year (but Alas! Life had other plans).

The AIR Lab has been recruiting student interns for quite some time now. The selection is based on a 4-week assignment challenge posted on their website, sometime in November. The purpose of the assignment was to familiarize us with the basic concepts of Motion Planning, 3D Perception and/or Semantic Segmentation using Deep Learning. These may sound fancy, but the assignment takes you through the basics in a systematic way, and all one must do is stick with it. At the least, the assignment leaves you with some cool techniques in vision and planning.

With my hectic winter internship and work at MSI, I wasn’t sure whether I’d be able to attempt the assignment beyond the literature phase. Eventually, everything did work out and I managed to complete the submission a week before the deadline, thanks to the continuous support by my mentor-cum-friend Alankar Kotwal (forever indebted) and pep talks by Samruddhi, Chinmay, Devyani, Mukesh and others. I missed most of Mood Indigo, but then there’s always trade-offs and you have to make some choices.

Onboarding

The onboarding process started early in March because robotics occupies a top spot in the Technology Alert List, which basically means that your Visa can get stalled for no particular fault of yours. To my pleasant surprise, my process proceeded very smoothly and barring a little confusion from the department’s side, onboarding couldn’t have been simpler. But given my past experiences, it wasn’t until my flight landed in Boston that I actually believed I would be spending 10 weeks at CMU!

Tip: The Visa interview is hyped. If you are applying for an internship, there is almost no reason for you to worry. The best way out is to play innocent!

First Impressions

As my flight landed on a Friday (bad planning), there was no way for me to get my college identity card until Monday; this meant being clueless about my workplace for another weekend, above all things. Despite the rains (and not carrying any woolens or jackets, ‘cause Summer), I could not contain the enthu and ended up sneaking into the college premises. Universities usually follow open campus policies on weekdays – anyone who is interested to learn about the work going on can walk in and see what’s going on. Being a Saturday, that was not an option. I ended up asking students to help me in with their ID, and walked a total of about 5 miles (which is a lot for a mere 100-acre campus) exploring the various labs and halls across several departments. I spent the next day exploring University of Pittsburgh, gaping at the architectural marvels that their buildings were, and at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, awestruck at the state of the public library and secretly wishing this was in Mumbai!

Scrabble, anyone?

Student Reading Area at UPitt

Work

A legit 35 minutes of following Google Maps and 2 rounds of the campus later, I finally found the entrance to the Newell-Simon Hall, home to the Robotics Institute. Since I was only a temporary employee, I did not have a cabin allotted to be, which basically meant that I could sit anywhere I wanted, and given the large number of peaceful places to work/study, this served to be the greatest boon to me. I was part of a team working on a long-term project with the DoE for the inspection and multi-modal mapping of nuclear facilities. My particular task was to come up with an algorithm that can be used to localize multiple radiation sources/distributions using simple point sensors. The crux of my work was to improve upon statistical practices used in localization and mapping scenarios for robotics, and extend them to a radiation mapping setup.

After a couple of weeks of literature survey and fathoming the landscape, real work began. It’s been a great experience to tackle a research problem from the roots, from building a strong theoretical background in a topic I wasn’t aware of, to proposing an approach to the problem and implementing the whole environment in simulation. The icing on the cake was the visit to the Orion Radiation Measurement Group at the University of Michigan, where cutting-edge technologies in robotics and radiation measurement came together to perform some real-world experiments. A major portion of my internship was to extend the simulated models to the real-world data that we collected.

The Highbay at Field Robotics Center

Gearing up for a night-out

Home and Food

(I’m a little too casual with the usage of the word home, so please excuse me.)

Right when the Visa process began to close in, I started looking for accommodation as I was warned it would get expensive as time progresses. Along with two other interns from the MechE department, I subleased an apartment large enough for our luggage and ambitions.

If you’re a vegetarian in the United States, food is going to be your biggest concern. The first blow came when an excited kid (me) walked into a McDonald’s outlet to order a McVeggie, which did not exist. On the positive side, I had always been looking forward to trying my hand at cooking, and this stay gave me an excellent opportunity on that front. With half a bag full of foodstuff and masalas packed from home, every night was a new adventure, exploring new dishes and cuisines. For the daytime, there’s always the likes of Chipotle and Subway, although I did miss having Taco Bell close by.

The City of Pittsburgh

Being preoccupied with getting started with work, none of us had made any travel plans and hence we ended up spending the whole of first month at Pittsburgh itself. I’d label Pittsburgh as the ideal university town, with the correct blend of open grasslands, university campuses and a happening downtown and city life. With my love for tall buildings, I spent a good amount of time gaping at the modest skyline that the downtown had to offer. The malls and retail outlets were a rejoice to the shopping addict within. Amidst other things, the obsession with Baseball and Ice Hockey in Pittsburgh is comparable to the one we portray for cricket!

The best urban vista in the United States!

Baseball match at the PNC Park

Going Around

Unlike the widely accepted equation “foreign internship = weekend travels”, I barely managed to get 3 weekends completely off for myself. Being the travel freak I am, I had to make sure I made the most out of them. The location of Pittsburgh meant that I’d be spending over 6 hours traveling to any major city.

  • Washington DC & Baltimore

Being an ardent fan of House of Cards, an 8-hour ride landed me in the District of Columbia early one Saturday. From the legendary Smithsonian museums, to watching the Asian Giant Panda live and touring the Capitol Hill – the day left me with memories for a lifetime. Instead of utilizing the well-established public commute, I hired a bike (shared bikes are dope!) for going around the city. In a greed to lay my eyesight on as many masterpieces as I could, I biked for over 30 miles in the day and boy, was it worth it! Laying by the fountain at the World War Memorial is recommended. Sachin Goyal was kind to host me at his place at Baltimore, and we spent another day around the beautiful harbor city. Not visiting the Johns Hopkins University when in town would have been a sin!

‘cause the Panda is love!

Night at the Museum anyone?

At JHU

 

  • New York City

Visiting New York City had been a dream since the day I had heard about the majesty of the skyline, Wall Street and Times Square. I took a bike yet again, and biked over 30 miles (mostly along the Hudson), lived a day at The Center of the Universe. Biking across the Brooklyn Bridge is recommended. Of the other places, Grand Central Terminus (OVERWHELMING!), Columbia University, NYU, Central Park and Rockefeller Center were on the topic of my watchlist. The day ended with an eventful night at the Times Square.

Bike, land, greens and skyscrapers!

Biking by the Hudson

New York City from the One World Observatory

 

  • Chicago

The fourth of July weekend had me on a road trip to Chicago, or Gotham, as many of you would know it. I spent a day in downtown Chicago, with family, going around locations made popular by movies and comics. For someone who has spent a large number of nights by our very own Powai Lake, the Michigan Lake was something I wasn’t ready to accept. With lakes as big as oceans, and the best skyline I have seen thus far, Chicago has been an amazing host.

The Gotham Skyline

The one with the Bean!

Wrapping Up

As I enter into my last week of this internship, I have nothing but good memories to take away from this place. The internship has offered me way more opportunities than I could’ve asked for, and I am eternally indebted to my advisor for the same. From diving deep into inter-disciplinary research, to travelling around some of the best urban vistas and living the ‘murrican lifestyle, the past 2 months have helped me develop a better perspective towards various aspects of life. The opportunity to work alongside like-minded people from diverse backgrounds has helped me shape my thoughts better and rendered me a new, improved perspective towards the world around me.

With new perspectives and a fresh mindset, I look forward to coming back to the institute!

(It’s July already and I miss the rains!)

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