Article by Nane Zietsman
Stellenbosch University alumnus, Sonja Brits, has excelled by achieving her Master’s Degree in Robotics, Systems and Controls at ETH in Zurich. The path that led her to ETH started in her first year of Bachelor’s when she saw videos of acrobatic flying drones that could balance poles and work cooperatively to throw and catch balls with a net. “That was one of my inspirations to stay in mechatronics. When applying for universities overseas in my final-year, I realised the video was from ETH Zurich, that presented itself to be one of the top universities for robotics,” says Sonja.
Reflecting on her undergraduate studies at Stellenbosch University, Sonja feels that her degree gave her a solid basic foundation in engineering knowledge, and the ability to solve problems. “I did not feel like I was lacking in knowledge when I was in a class with some of the best international students from all over the world.” She embraced the freedom given at ETH to shape her Master’s degree according to her interests. “I chose a wide mix of robotics courses such as robot dynamics, computer vision algorithms, dynamic programming, system identification and more. In addition to the courses, you have to do a semester project and an internship which gives you the opportunity to work with a university lab or company.”
One of the highlights of her time at ETH was taking part in the Formula Student competitions, with AMZ Racing. “We were a team of around 20 people who built a small formula style self-driving race car, and competed in competitions around Europe against other university teams.” This gave her the opportunity to apply and learn practical robotics skills, as well as leadership and organisation. Her team was challenged by modifying the eclectic race car to drive itself by adding many sensors, such as cameras, lidars, IMU, and GPS. “By processing the camera images and lidar point clouds the car computer could build a map of the race track, which has traffic cones on both sides. Once it has a map of the cones, it can find the path through the cones and control the actuators to accelerate and steer it around the track. We added a steering actuator to turn the wheel, and an emergency brake system so we could stop the car remotely if we needed to. We tested the autonomous system on large open spaces, such as military airfields or large empty parking lots, where we could build a cone track.” Sonja was part of this project for two years, first as software architect and then as the software team lead.
Sonja paved her way to a bright future by making the most of the opportunities that ETH had to offer. In 2018 she was given the opportunity by one of her professors to do a 6-month internship at his company, nuTonomy. “Back then they were still a smaller start-up company, but now they are part of Motional, an autonomous driving company.” During her final semester, she decided to apply for a job at Motional where she has now been working at their Singapore offices since October 2020 as a systems engineer. She dedicates her inclination for the job to her experience at AMZ Racing and is excited to broaden her knowledge even further.
It is often easy to forget where you started when you have reached greats heights, such as Sonja did. Thinking back to her Bachelor’s degree Sonja recognises the fact that there were times when she did not feel as if studying abroad was within her reach. “I often doubted whether I should apply. A lot of times I did not feel as if I were good enough, but I persisted and applied despite my concerns. My department and final year project supervisors were very supportive of me which gave me confidence and I realised that I didn’t want to be afraid to pursue something, even if it might be too ambitious. I wanted to decide for myself how to live my life and expand my way of thinking.” Sonja believes that students should decide on their own goals. “You don’t necessarily have to leave the country. The way I did it was just one of many ways.” She urges students to commit to their goals, even at times when these seem inconceivable. “Good grades are essential, so work hard but most importantly, believe in yourself and just take the leap.”
Left: Sonja Brits and the AMZ Driverless team at a competition in 2018
Middle: Sonja Brits on the “Polyterasse” at ETH Zurich
Right: Making sure the software is ready just before the competition at Formula Student Germany