Industry Spotlight: Robotics

Industry Spotlight: Robotics

"Robotics is growing, and the opportunities for new applications are everywhere -- in every chore, every difficult and dangerous task," says James English, president of Energid Technologies, a provider of engineering services for robotics. "I can't imagine a field that excites the imagination more today than robotics."

According to Judy Reed, vice president of human resources at iRobot, maker of the popular Roomba vacuuming robot, "iRobot engineers have an infectious passion for working on robots that is often missing from other companies and fields."

With an increasing number of industries employing robots, more engineers and software professionals are needed to engage in the challenging work of designing robotic devices that perform repetitive, unpleasant or dangerous tasks, such as assembling cell phones, washing floors or disarming bombs.

Industries at the forefront of using robotics include agriculture, automotive, electronics, manufacturing and the military.

Renaissance Professionals

Roboticists say the field is notable for encompassing so many areas, including artificial intelligence, computer networks, database design, electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, user interfaces and voice recognition.

Because so many fields are involved in creating devices that perform in the unpredictable environment of the real world, the problems robotics tackles are particularly complex and difficult to solve.

For this reason, robotics professionals are often passionate about and possess expertise in many fields. "Usually a roboticist is a renaissance person," says Illah Nourbakhsh, associate professor of robotics at Carnegie Mellon University's Robotics Institute.

Advanced Education the Norm

Robotics professionals typically have degrees in electrical engineering, mechanical engineering or computer science, sometimes in tandem with degrees or expertise in human-computer interaction or psychology. Advanced degrees are typical, but as more and more robot applications enter the mainstream, opportunities for those without advanced degrees should open up.

"For research work on robot control and machine vision, advanced education is ideal, while for software development, experience with the relevant tools and team projects is important," English says. At his company, about four out of five engineers have a master's degree or doctorate.

To break into the field, robotics research at a university and robotics-related internships are often necessary. To get that robotics research lab time, would-be roboticists should enroll in a university known for its robotics programs, such as Carnegie Mellon or Georgia Tech.

Room for IT Professionals

Software developers, network professionals and other IT workers may have an easier time breaking into robotics, in part because of all the computer technology involved in robot projects.

Today's robots often have a network component, linking them together or with other computer systems. "It's an excellent opportunity for people with a network background," notes Jack Browne, editor of Robotics World magazine, citing the network-centric systems the US Army's Future Combat Systems program is developing.

Others may break into robotics based on the technical knowledge they bring from another industry. "Because the field is growing, there are important roles for experts in application domains," English says. "A company developing a new robot for the Navy, say, needs someone with military experience -- whether or not that person has done anything with robots."

I, Robot

Robot professionals say it's never too soon to get started with robots. Aside from internships and university research, "another great way to develop your understanding of the robotics field is to build your own robot," Reed says. He also suggests participating in a robotics competition, such as the popular FIRST Robotics Competition for high school students.

Since robotics brings together experts from disparate disciplines, it's particularly important to work with others on projects, rather than toiling alone on a robot. "What you really want to do is become part of a community," Nourbakhsh says. "Robotics is all about integration."

It's about discovery, too. "It is a rapidly growing field," Browne says. "It's still in its early stages of development. There's a lot of room for growth."