Employee Spotlight: Brandon Blodget
The Evolving Road To Robotic Engineering – One Man’s Journey
OLogic CTO, Trail Runner, and Dad
Brandon Blodget has been with OLogic for almost 11 years and is currently the CTO. He is a highly valued Software Engineer and Electrical Engineer who recently took on a managing role too. He has over 25 years of engineering experience where he has worked on a variety of projects. From starting his career as a Technical Support Engineer at Xilinx to being the CTO at OLogic, his career journey is an interesting read that you don’t want to miss.
Background/what drew him to engineering:
Brandon’s interest in programming began at a young age, at around 8 years old, when his dad bought an Apple II computer. He remembers sitting with his dad at the computer, and his dad would say, “Let’s see if we can write a program to do this…”, which led them to working on it. Brandon remembers, “It would be a big rush when you got it to do what you wanted. I remember this feeling that programming was like being on a journey, we were exploring together. Once my mom was calling us to dinner, and I remember thinking ‘We can’t stop now, she has no idea the journey we are on.’”
Just a few years later, Brandon got his own computer, a TI 99/4a. With this computer, he excelled in school and even wrote his own word processor on it plus used it for his 7th grade English assignments. “The first assignment that I turned in, the teacher was so impressed that she passed my printout around the class.” Brandon also remembers how, “One girl in the class, looking at the paper, said ‘I don’t understand, all I see are dots’” as the quality of the dot matrix printing was not that good.
Growing up, he wrote many other programs too. For example, while in Scouts, he wrote a database that would help keep track of attendance and in 8th grade, he got into 6502 assembly and created little games using shape tables to move characters around. He also wrote a paint program for the Atari ST that received praise from Jack Tramiel who was the CEO of Atari at the time. He learned other computer languages such as Pascal, Modula2, and Magical (which was supposed to be the next big language).
When it came time to choose a college major, he chose psychology until his dad said, “Why not computers?” Computers didn’t even occur to him until his dad mentioned that to him, this is when he decided on Computer Engineering as his major.
Brandon attended Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Computer Engineering. While in school, he worked as a software programmer for a local company, Lindamood-Bell Learning Processes, where he helped create multi-media computerized versions of their standardized tests. While in school, he worked on some pretty advanced multimedia for the 90s, in which he would show a video that would give the students instructions and then the student would drag and drop blocks onto a virtual mat (as per the instructions). For his senior project at Cal Poly, he helped set up an Field Programmable Gate Arrays (FPGA) lab for the Computer Engineering department as well as implemented and simulated a part of IBM’s PowerPC processor using the XACT Step FPGA development tools from Xilinx, which helped him land his job at Xilinx after graduating.
Brandon began his professional career at Xilinx, where he worked as a Technical Support Engineer. While there, he worked the hotline and worked in 4-5 hour shifts helping Xilinx customers with their technical problems. Because there were common problems that would come up again and again, Brandon and the rest of the support engineers wrote “solution records” that would be added into a database for future reference. This helped to streamline the process of helping customers, so when a customer would call in with one of the common problems, they would say something like “you need solution record 123”, which they would then email or fax to them.
In Brandon’s words, “This was the mid 90’s and the world wide web was this hot new thing. I thought it would be great if customers could go onto the Xilinx website and search through our “Answer Record Database”. Brandon did some proof of concept work and wrote scripts to pull new or modified solutions records and convert them to HTML and push it to the web every night. He also wrote a search engine that indexed all the solution records so they could be searched on the Xilinx site. At the time, the powers of Xilinx did not want the solution recorded on the main Xilinx site, but they later agreed to let Brandon and his colleagues start a new site: http://support.xilinx.com.
After working as a Technical Support Engineer for a few years, Brandon realized that his career path was turning towards becoming a web developer. While he really liked FPGA tech, he felt as though he was moving away from the hands-on work that comes with being a software engineer. Around this time, he heard about a new software group that was working to develop software that would enable Run-Time Reconfiguration of FPGAs. This new tech peaked his interest, so he applied and was hired as a software engineer on the JBits team. Brandon really enjoyed working on this project because they started with a clean slate- they built the software to program the FPGAs from the ground up, not relying on previous versions of Xilinx software. The piece of software that he worked on was the Virtex Device Simulator, which was “unique for a simulator because instead of simulating at the HDL level, you loaded the FPGA bitstream (full or partial) and could simulate using the actual bitstream. We had a visualization tool called BoardScope that could connect to a real FPGA board or the Device Simulator with the same interface.”
Brandon continued to work on the Virtex Device Simulator until the dotcom bubble burst in 2001. As a result, unfortunately the funding for the project ran out, which led to many engineers from their group being moved to different groups, including Brandon. He then ended up in the Xilinx Research Lab and continued work with Run-Time Reconfiguration (a.k.a. Partial reconfiguration) and System on a Chip (SoC) tools. During this time, there was a lot of development work around making it easy to use processors, both hard and soft, in the FPGA. This would enable customers to build System on a Chip (SoC) designs.
Continuing his career at Xilinx, specifically in the research labs, he led the team to work on developing a self-reconfiguring platform that allows an embedded processor to reconfigure a section of the FPGA while the rest of the FPGA (including the embedded processor) remained operational and running. During this time, he demonstrated the application technique of a high I/O reconfigurable crossbar switch, that used partial reconfiguration to dynamically update the routing to create a very dense crossbar switch.
In addition, he worked on a few other different projects while at Xilinx. One project that he worked on was a demonstration of modular dynamic reconfiguration, including showing that it was possible to dynamically load, or swap FPGA peripherals onto a processor system bus, while the rest of the system kept operating. While using that technique, he implemented a Software Defined Radio (SDR) demonstrator that had two radio channels, in which one could be reconfigured with a different type of radio, while the other channel kept operating uninterrupted and even took it one step further by developing a Virtual File System that enables partially reconfiguring an FPGA under Linux. In addition, he also worked on transferring the CAD Design Methodologies that Brandon and his team developed in the labs into the commercial Xilinx software.
Brandon became interested in robotics while working at Xilinx. Xilinx had just adopted a local elementary school to help out in the community, so Xilinx employees would volunteer time to read to students, teach skills, and mentor them. While volunteering, Brandon and another Xilinx colleague started an after school Lego Mindstorm program for 4th and 5th graders. They created their own curriculum, which taught the students about gears, motors, and sensors. One of the projects the students built was a machine that would sort gumballs by color, which was a big hit with the class. One parent even told Brandon, “My son looks forward to this class all week.”
Continuing his interest in robotics, Brandon started thinking that Xilinx FPGAs would be great for robotics. FPGAs allow for fine grain parallelism, so they can meet the stringent timing requirements of many sensors and motors at the same time with a single chip. The microcontrollers of the day had a hard time controlling more than a couple sensors and motors. Brandon talked this idea over with another Xilinx colleague who worked in the labs, Bob Conn. Bob said, “Well a good first step would be to see if you can spin a motor with an FPGA”. Bob then gave Brandon an FPGA board which Brandon used to build his first FPGA powered robot, which was a tabletop bot named Loafer. Years later, Bob Conn would join Brandon at OLogic.
During this time, Brandon started attending the HomeBrew Robotics Club (HBRC). “I was blown away by the creative things people were building, and the general excitement in the club!” It was at the HBRC that Brandon met Ted Larson and Bob Allen, future founders of OLogic. “It was fun to see Bob and Ted’s early balancing robots such as the RoboMagellan robot, Odyssey and the genesis of OLogic. Both Bob and Ted were very generous with their time and knowledge and mentored many new roboticists including myself.”
Soon after, Brandon organized a presentation to the HBRC club about FPGAs and their potential for robotics. There was a lot of interest and Brandon even got Xilinx to donate Xilinx software and some boards to the club. In 2005 Brandon, with some help from friends, built a RoboMagellan robot named Exploradora. Exploradora was basically a test bed for Brandon’s ideas that an FPGA could be the main brain of a robot. It had a custom FPGA board that controlled everything on the robot and was a System-on-chip design with an embedded MicroBlaze processor with custom peripherals communicating via a system bus all on the FPGA. The MicroBlaze processor ran ucLinux and Brandon would program the robot via a scripting language using the ucLinux serial console. Exploradora participated in the RoboMagellan competition at PDXBot 2005 in Portland, Oregon. At PDXBot Exploradora became the first RoboMagellan to touch the finishing cone in competition.
Brandon continued to work for Xilinx up until 2007, when he left Xilinx in order to start a robotics company with HBRC friends. This new company, called Roboticore, aimed to become the Robotics Vision Company. Brandon, along with his friends, created an FPGA accelerated Vision Toolbox which could be easily scripted using the high-level language Lua. Plus, they created a demonstration platform that they called Visibot. Over the course of his time working with Roboticore, Brandon worked on a number of demos including very fast color blob tracking, pattern recognition, and a robot that participated in a firefighting competition.
After working at Roboticore, Brandon was looking for something new and mentioned to Ted Larson that he was thinking about starting another company. Ted then said to him, “why go off and make no money on your own, when you could come make no money with me?” That was the sales pitch that got Brandon on board to join the team at OLogic.
Brandon has really enjoyed working at OLogic. It has given him a chance to work on a very diverse set of projects. One was working on developing core robot technologies such as Lidar and 3D cameras. He also worked on many mobile robot products such as Savioke, Bear Robotics, Dusty Robotics and others. He has also worked on non-robotic projects as well, such as a Tangible Programming block set, which was a set of blocks that teaches programming. OLogic has worked with a variety of companies: large companies, medium sized companies, and even small companies that are just the founders. Brandon recalls one fun project which was to build self-balancing Bug Droid robots for Google. “They then hired us to drive them around at Google I/O and other events.” Brandon says the most rewarding part of the job is seeing customers go from an idea to a real product.
A few years ago Brandon got into Trail Running. A work colleague, Bob Christopher, got him into the sport. Brandon really enjoys the sport and finds it more enjoyable than running on roads. “On the trails you get to be out in nature and you need to concentrate on your foot placement avoiding rocks and roots, you can get into a real flow state.” Before the pandemic Brandon competed in a number of trail half marathons. He completed the Brazen Ultra Half Series, which was 5 trail half marathons, each one having 2000 to 4000 feet of climbing. He also did some longer distance races including the Skyline to the Sea Marathon, which raced through the Santa Cruz mountains. Brandon has won numerous age group medals, and often places pretty high up in the overall as well.
Brandon has two sons, who are young adults now. Brandon enjoys following their creative endeavors. His older son is going to Digipen University, learning computer science and video game design. His younger son is an aspiring movie director and he has written his own screenplay. He is casting actors and plans to film it on an old Bolex 16mm film camera. Brandon’s wife owns and operates a Perfusion Medical Service Corporation. Brandon enjoys a rich home and work life.