Mr Cheng Wee Kiang, 38, a principal engineer with the Defence Science and Technology Agency (DSTA), works in the Land Systems Programme Centre that acquires, develops and integrates land systems for the Singapore Armed Forces.

His team focuses on developing unmanned ground capabilities or robotics. “We work with advanced systems and defence technologies which play an important role in ensuring Singapore’s security,” he explains.

“The job has given me an opportunity to work on robotics and I have steadily built up technical knowledge in the field. It has been an interesting learning journey and I have not regretted my decision to join DSTA 13 years ago,” he says.

“One thing that I love about my job is seeing our prototype robots move and function in real life situations and not getting into accidents. The level of satisfaction is priceless!”

DSTA is responsible for implementing defence technology plans, acquiring defence material and developing the defence infrastructure for the Ministry of Defence.

“The knowledge that the deployed robotics systems I work on are able to take soldiers out of harm’s way further adds to the fulfilment in my job. Also, it feels great to see the proud and happy expressions on my teammates’ faces when our projects are successfully delivered to the SAF,” he adds.

Mr Cheng says a basic engineering degree is sufficient if one wants to join the defence ecosystem upon graduation as much of the knowledge is subsequently acquired through on-the-job training, self-learning and specialised training.

Mr Cheng holds a Bachelor of Engineering degree in Mechanical Engineering from the National University of Singapore. In 1998, he applied for a job opening in the then Defence Materiel Organisation — which was merged with several other defence organisations to form DSTA in 2000.

He clinched a DSTA Postgraduate Scholarship in 2003 to pursue a Master of Science in Combat Systems Technology from the Temasek Defence Systems Institute and the US Naval Postgraduate School.

From drawing board to field

Even though the official working hours are from 9am to 6pm, there are times when Mr Cheng works late to conduct trials and meet tight datelines. “It’s most fulfilling to see the robotics systems that I helped develop, working and functioning well during field trials.”

Sometimes, he has to return to the drawing board after trials for fine-tuning or trouble-shooting. “I find satisfaction in brainstorming alternative solutions to problems within a short timeframe. Every member of the team has to give their best to come up with good solutions and it is usually after several rounds of iterations before we see our systems work well,” he elaborates.

When Singapore hosted the International Monetary Fund and World Bank Conference in September 2006, DSTA had to deliver a detection robot that could identify chemical, biological, radiological and explosive threats.

Mr Cheng was the lead engineer of the project team who had to meet a challenging timeline to deliver a working prototype. “We had to start the development of the prototype from scratch as there were no solutions in the market that could meet the requirements.”

The team spent many nights in the workshop troubleshooting problems and brainstorming on the design solutions.

“We managed to complete the design, testing and delivery of the system within one week before the start of the event. Looking back, the project still brings back a lot of good memories of how we managed to pull it off within a short notice, motivated each other and focused on delivering the capability,” he recalls.

His typical day involves project review and management meetings, focus group discussions, problem-solving sessions and on-site trials. He splits his time between desk-bound duties and on-site trials and coaching and mentoring seven other engineers.

He adds that new staff gets to attend foundation courses that build basic knowledge in project management, effective presentation and communications skills. There are other advanced courses that staff attends to strengthen their project management skills and keep tabs on technology trends.

Mr Cheng has participated in many overseas training stints that include seminars, conferences and training courses. He also travels occasionally to Europe and the United States for project review meetings and acceptance tests.