Signal Processing Specialist Applies New Embedded Skills to Robotics Startup


- Abdo Babukr, Embedded Systems Alumnus

Term : March, 2016
Department : Engineering
Program : Embedded Systems

Abdo Babukr is, among other things, a signal processing specialist, a software-defined radio enthusiast, the co-founder of a robotics startup, and a maker. He developed his theoretical background in electrical engineering during his undergraduate studies at UCSC and a master’s at San Jose State University. It was after he finished graduate school, when he joined forces with two colleagues from Santa Cruz to found  Reflex Robotics, that he realized he needed to supplement his theoretical knowledge with hands-on practice. UCSC Extension’s Embedded Systems program was the perfect fit. Babukr completed the certificate in early 2016.

What interested you in the Embedded Systems program?

When I was in my grad program, I experienced a lot of issues bridging the gap between theory and practice. When I enrolled at UCSC Extension, that gap started closing. In my first class, “Embedded Hardware Architecture, Introduction,” I learned that embedded systems have a lot of limited resources, between memory and processing power. With embedded systems you’re not just working in software; you also have to have a lot of knowledge of the hardware needed to build all the components, from memory to processors and interfaces. I benefited a lot from the program.

How have you applied your new skills to work?

The classes were all very hands-on, which was really helpful. The prototype we’re working on now is called the Raven. It’s an autonomous cameraman that you mount on your helmet, but it also has motors to track objects using computer vision. With the camera mounted on your head, it streams wireless through a mobile app, so you can see what your camera sees. The Raven is a gimbal coupled with a CPU processor where the machine learning is done on the system.

One of my co-founders specializes in robotics; he built the stabilizer platform for the Raven. My other colleague specializes in computer vision and machine learning; he makes the algorithms that we update and improve using open-source tools. My job is to make it optimized for the embedded systems platform. That’s why I benefited so much from the “Embedded Linux Design and Programming” class: I learned how to make the operating system as small as possible to serve our application. We hands-on built an operating system from scratch, using open-source tools. As soon as I could, I applied that knowledge to our prototype, and soon we were using only 10% of the memory we were using before. We were using video products, and initially we couldn’t bridge that gap between theory and application, but the courses I took really helped.

I benefited a lot from “Real-Time Embedded Systems Programming, Introduction,” because the product we are working on now has real-time requirements. In my “Embedded Firmware Essentials” course, I learned that when you are using a Linux-based operating system, it is rich in features because it’s a big open-source project available for commercial use, but it’s not the best thing to use for real-time applications. I was able to get a lot from each course.

What advice do you have for professionals interested in embedded systems?

My advice is to do what I did as a beginner: familiarize yourself with the technology, where it was, where it is now, and where it’s going. Embedded systems are fast-paced; what’s going on today might be different from where it’s heading three years from now.

On the theory side, I was really strong after graduate school. As a signal processing specialist I could do analyses on wireless, image or audio signals, and in theory I could understand them, but in practice, you have to understand your computer platform. Over the past year and a half at UCSC Extension, I was able to use them in practice. Now that I have a better understanding of embedded systems and Linux, I can apply that knowledge anywhere I choose to go in my career.

Reflex Robotics incorporated in October 2014, and as of spring 2016, they have started gaining interest from Silicon Valley investors.

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