Member Spotlight: Sonali Deshpande

Member Spotlight: Sonali Deshpande

Join us as we explore the remarkable career of Sonali Deshpande, a seasoned robotics professional, from her formative years in Electrical Engineering to her current role at Relay Robotics. Discover her insights into navigating the complexities of service robots and advocating for greater gender diversity in the field.

What is your background?

 I come from an Electrical Engineering background and then did my Masters in Robotics from The Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon. Since I graduated, I’ve worked on self driving cars for General Motors R&D, the adorable home robot Kuri at Mayfield Robotics, and most recently on Relay, a service robot for hotels and hospitals, at Relay Robotics

How did you get into robotics?

When I was in undergrad, I stumbled across Andrew Ng’s Machine Learning course in the early days of Coursera. I was hooked. I talked to a professor I looked up to and asked him if there was any field that would allow me to combine Machine Learning with Control Systems, which was my favorite field at the time. He pointed me to Robotics and Intelligent Control (Reinforcement learning wasn’t a big thing back then). That got me to apply to several robotics programs for grad school and when I got accepted into the Robotics Institute, my trajectory was set. Once I got a taste of robotics, there was no looking back. I never ended up doing work that focused on combining ML and control systems but I’m very grateful that it got me into robotics.

What do you currently do in robotics?

For the last five years I have been working for Relay Robotics, formerly Savioke, a spin off of Willow Garage. We build robots that do room service at hotels and relieve some of the stress of overworked staff at hospitals by doing autonomous delivery of medicines and other items. I work in particular on the navigation pipeline of our robot, Relay. That includes sensor selection and processing, perception, path planning, localization and mapping.

What is your favorite and least favorite thing about robotics?

I love how Robotics can be both very challenging and very rewarding. The multidisciplinary nature of it and the need for it to exist in and interact with the chaos of the physical world means that making something work, and not just work but work well consistently and reliably can be very challenging. But when that does happen, it’s great to see the joy and the value it can bring to people. As an engineer, I thrive on both the challenge and the reward.

My least favorite thing about robotics is how underrepresented women are in the field. I find that I’m often the only woman in the room and that really needs to change.

What excites you the most about the future of robotics?

In the beginning of my career, it seemed like it would take a long time for Robotics to mature to the point where they can add real value to the world. But in just a few short years, many different branches of work in AI and robotics have gained momentum and are crossing the threshold of being able to add major positive value to the world. Even at Relay, I often witness how much understaffed and overworked hospital teams come to rely on our robots to reduce their workload. Warehouse robots are thriving. Self driving cars are slowly starting to scale. And foundation models have revolutionized AI and made it accessible to everyone. And this is just the beginning. I’m excited to see where this goes and to contribute to its unfolding.

Describe something that you do (or would like to do) to help support younger women in robotics?

It’s difficult, early in your career, to have a strong voice and stand up for yourself. And to know that your perspective is valuable to others, even if you  struggle to see its value. I’d like to be someone who can encourage young women to be confident and as cliche as it is, to believe in themselves. And know that it’s okay to ask for what you want. Often, that is all it takes.