Sanjeev Seereeram

Trinidad and Tobago Icons Vol 3

The idea of automated servants, mechanical or otherwise, has haunted and inspired the human imagination for over 2000 years. In 320 BC, the Greek philosopher, Aristotle, prophetically wrote: “If every tool, when commanded, or even of its own accord, could do the work that befits it… then there would be no need either of apprentices for the master workers or of slaves for the lords.”

Since then, artists, writers, inventors and scientists alike continued to dream of, and experiment with, notions of automation.

But it was only with the advent of computer technology in the mid-1950s that the world could witness the phenomenal rise of robotics, and the seemingly limitless potential for the application of artificial intelligence in every sphere of human life. Robots have revolutionised manufacturing, industry and scientific research, performing hundreds of tasks that humans cannot or will not do because of imprecision, difficulty or danger. Increasingly versatile machines have become indispensable, with tens of thousands of them being employed in this century ranging from high-speed automobile assembly to deep space exploration. In this environment, the work of artificial intelligence researchers and developers like Dr. Sanjeev Seereeram has become invaluable.

Currently Senior Vice President of Research and Development at Scientific Systems Company, Inc. (SSCI) in Massachusetts, USA, Dr. Seereeram has worked at the forefront of the field of advanced robotics and autonomous systems for over 25 years, both on a theoretical level and in advanced prototype development and flight test programmes. Today, his focus is on strategic technology leadership and developing new ideas for SSCI, rather than on building and testing prototypes. Prior to this, as Principal Investigator or Lead for over twenty of the company’s projects, he performed strategic technology planning, led research, design, development, integration and tests for an array of advanced, experimental robotics and unmanned vehicle systems. US Government clients include the US Department of Defense – Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the US Air Force (AFRL) and Navy (ONR) – the National Science Foundation (NSF), the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), and the New York State Center for Automation Technology. Industrial clients include the major aerospace companies – Boeing, Lockheed-Martin, Sikorsky Aircraft, and Northrop-Grumman. Perhaps his most exciting work was performed with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Johnson Space Center), with whom he had worked as a research assistant in 1991 during his graduate studies.

Some of these important design and development achievements include:

  • a robotic testbed (a platform for large scale development projects) for in-space assembly of International Space Station truss assembly and habitat modules (living quarters) using cooperative dual-arm robotic technology;
  • optimal guidance, navigation and controls strategies for advanced spacecraft to provide for autonomous orbit maintenance and interplanetary trajectory control;
  • autonomous trajectory planning for the Space Shuttle Remote Manipulator System (‘shuttle arm’), which significantly eases the human operator’s task;
  • on-board health monitoring, failure detection and reconfiguration technology for the NASA Cassini interplanetary spacecraft. (One of the most exciting assignments of his career!);
  • in-space autonomous satellite rendezvous, docking, capture and retrieval technology designed for the Mars Sample Return mission;
  • a collaborative intelligent swarm of unmanned vehicles capable of carrying out long-term environmental monitoring without remote human operators; and
  • autonomous sense-and-avoid technology to enable unmanned air vehicles to avoid collisions with civilian or commercial aircraft – a critical step forward in flight safety for future unmanned aircraft.

Born in Chaguanas in 1963, Seereeram had a natural and driven interest in all things scientific. He was a wide-eyed, six-year old in 1969 and vividly remembers when American astronauts, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, landed on the moon. Watching live footage of it on TV, he was transfixed, awed by the ability of humankind to fly, whether by planes or rockets. From then on, he read voraciously about the aerospace industry and dreamed of one day designing and building airplanes and spacecraft himself.

Throughout his childhood, he tinkered with mechanical devices, attempting to take them apart, learn about what made them work and put them back together – though he did not always succeed in the last step! This was well in keeping with the philosophy of self-reliance held by his parents, Harrinath and Hira Seereeram, who encouraged their five children to fix and repair toys and mechanical and electrical items themselves rather than always buying replacements.

In 1974, his family moved to England, an environment that would help transform his childhood fascination into a lifelong interest. At a Royal Air Force air show, seeing aircraft up close, with their impressive flight displays, solidified his interest in aerospace technology, which he would go on to pursue single-mindedly. From that day on, he began collecting model aircraft and followed news of the aircraft industry in his spare time. As he completed his primary education in a suburb of London, he took advantage of his relocation to deepen his interest in aircraft through books, and the many museums and libraries in the city.

After returning to Trinidad, he attended Presentation College in Chaguanas, where he completed his A level studies in 1981. Always encouraged by his parents and teachers to excel, Seereeram won the President’s Gold Medal and National Open Scholarship in mathematics, physics and chemistry in his year.

He went on to attend Brown University in Rhode Island, USA), where he graduated Magna Cum Laude with Bachelor of Science and Master of Science degrees in Electrical Engineering (1985, 1986). It was at Brown that his interest in robotics was ignited when he completed a graduate-level independent studies course with Prof. William Wolovich, a leading academic researcher in the field. Robotics was rapidly emerging during the 1980s, initially with the manufacturing industries that were aggressively seeking to improve production yields and quality, but its vast, undeveloped potential for application in all sectors was beginning to be explored.

In 1987, Seereeram returned to Trinidad to work as an assistant lecturer in the Department of Electrical Engineering at The University of the West Indies (UWI), St Augustine. While teaching various undergraduate courses was challenging in its own right, he continued to feel that the journey to developing his technology and academic interests was only just starting.

Two years later, he left Trinidad to attend Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) in New York, USA, to continue his academic development and exploration of high technology aerospace and robotics fields. At RPI, he pursued a Ph.D. in Computer and Systems Engineering. Under the guidance of Prof. John Wen, he specialized in robotics, linear/non-linear systems theory and artificial intelligence. During this time, he undertook research at the Center for Intelligent Robotics Research for Space Exploration – a NASA-funded University Research Center – developing advanced robotic planning and control technology for in-space assembly of the planned International Space Station.

After completing his Ph.D, he joined SSCI in 1994, marking the beginning a rewarding career in robotics, aerospace and artificial intelligence development, and the realisation of his boyhood aspirations. The high quality of his work has allowed Seereeram to progress from systems analyst and design engineer to senior technology and executive leadership at SSCI. He continues to work on the development of artificial intelligence for advanced robotics, involving unmanned land, sea and air vehicles, as well as robotic spacecraft for solar system exploration. He has presented at aerospace and robotics conferences; served on four advisory panels; and published over 50 research papers in conference proceedings, peer-reviewed journals and engineering texts. He is a senior member of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) and a member of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE).

Today, whatever spare time exists outside his demanding work schedule is devoted to family life. He and his wife, Cecilia Mercado, a senior software developer herself, are equally busy raising their two young daughters. The couple also share a love for travelling. On his own, Seereeram tries to squeeze in time to pursue his hobby: amateur motor sports.

Seereeram sees many opportunities for countries in the region to further exploit the economic benefits of high-technology robotics and automation, primarily in terms of productivity improvements in manufacturing, as well as agriculture and food production. As he explains, “Robotics provides for flexible automation, which fits well with the scale of economic outputs of the region’s diverse micro and small businesses. The convergence of computing and information systems with automation means that our business processes can become more responsive to changing global demands, while still remaining competitive at smaller scales. As robotic and computing systems become more affordable and ubiquitous, local engineering and science curricula should be developed that stimulate the application of robotic technologies to local needs.”

As a corollary, he is also very encouraging to young people who, like him, might hope to pursue scientific and ‘high tech’ careers. From his own experience, he says, “A career in science can be extremely exciting and fulfilling provided the person has the aptitude, determination and interest. It requires a great deal of preparation (school and university) to succeed at the forefront, so there does need to be a dedication to the basics – math, science and communication skills development – throughout school. However, with the Internet, there is so much more information available at our fingertips that the entire academic learning process can be made immensely enjoyable and intuitive. My advice would be to stick to your dreams – even if it means slugging it out through the basics. The rewards of a solid math/science education are pretty wide-ranging, once you get to university and beyond.”

For Sanjeev Seereeram, Trinidad and Tobago provided that fundamental science and mathematics education background, and enabled him to follow his dreams of becoming involved in aerospace and eventually robotics technology fields. Despite pursuing a career overseas, the land of his birth is still and will always be home, even as he shines his light elsewhere, as one of the many brilliant and successful members of our scientific diaspora around the world.