Rise of the Robots: Careers in Robotics

Posted by Michelle Grottenthaler on June 16, 2011
Rise of the Robots: Careers in Robotics

Robots have us surrounded. They're just about everywhere: in hospitals assisting with heart surgery, stocking shelves in factories, and cleaning the carpets in your home. "Basically anytime there's an environment that's dull, dirty, or dangerous for a human being, you'll need a robot," says Daniel H. Wilson, author of How to Survive a Robot Uprising. "That's why we send robots into outer space, war zones, and active volcanoes."

Robots don't complain, so in theory you can get them to do just about anything: In an automotive factory they can perform basic tasks ad infinitum, and humanoid robots can walk, talk, and assist (or replace) human beings. In Tokyo, the I-Fairy was just given the honors of conducting the first wedding ceremony performed by a robot.

The growing role of robots in everything from carpet cleaning to space exploration means the need for young, talented robotics professionals in the industry is ratcheting up. "I see nothing but expansion for robotics automation applications on into the future," says Rick Sinay, president of Davalyn Corporation, a search service for executives. "It's becoming more cost-effective now to produce those mechanical devices than it was years ago. It's not as exotic of a concept as it used to be, so more and more manufactures are looking at those kinds of solutions."

Colleges are beginning to offer more specialized programs to prepare students for work in particular fields, such as machine automation, cybernetics, or medical robots. A higher degree of specialization usually means higher pay, and engineers with a knack for anticipating the next step for robots-and capable of working in the industry's typically collaborative environment-will likely find success.

How Things Work
Intrigued by how things work, at 12, Eugene Kozlenko took apart a battery-powered water pistol and remote-control car and put them together to create a water-powered jet ski. "That's sort of my favorite thing-taking mechanical things apart to see if the engineer did it the same way that I would have." Now, Kozlenko can be found working on robotic limbs-used in prickly situations such as picking up objects on battlefields-at Barrett Technology in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Kozlenko's curiosity about how things work led him to study mechanical engineering in college. A summer internship at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center and a one-year stint with an agricultural robotics company in San Diego eventually led Kozlenko to his current position. As one of the two mechanical engineers at Barrett, Kozlenko has his hands full designing and building prototypes. One minute he could be designing a new calibration fixture for a sensor to make sure it is as accurate as possible before sending it off to a research lab; the next minute he could be soldering a circuit for a mechanical part that just arrived.

Kozlenko finds it exhilarating to work with robots. There are moments of frustration (such as when electric components fail seemingly for no reason) but the sudden discoveries are worth it. "You can't go more than a few hours without having to come up with something clever. Whether it's the most cost-effective way to machine a particular part, or coming up with a way to test a circuit that narrows down which component is acting up-every day is full of little opportunities."

As a company of 17 employees, Barrett is on the smaller side. Kozlenko recommends paying attention to the size of a company as you job hunt; you'll often have the opportunity to be more directly involved with projects if you're one of the few hands on deck. "I feel like if I was working at a large company I would basically be a CAD monkey. I would sit at a computer and review other engineers' drawings and not have much input."

Engineers in the robotics industry can expect to work collaboratively in a team environment and independently on specific tasks. "Once an idea is settled on, the approach is usually to divide and conquer," says Kozlenko. "But it's vital to communicate with the rest of the team, to come up with better solutions, and to be able to put the various parts of the solutions together."

On a whole, Kozlenko finds his job rewarding. "It's not an immediate sort of 'make a difference' feeling as you would experience if you were a doctor, but I definitely feel that if robots are able to break out of the factories and do what they do in the movies, it's going to have a huge and positive impact on everything."

Getting In
A robot is made up of hardware and software. The hardware makes up the physical body-the metal and plastic, the nuts and bolts-and the software is the "brains," telling the body how to move its parts. Commercial robots are usually conceived when an engineer realizes a task a robot can accomplish, such as cleaning the inside of a swimming pool.

Robotics engineers are involved in the design, construction, and troubleshooting that brings robots to life. They use computers to generate the designs before building a few prototypes. Once the prototype performs its task correctly and meets testing requirements, it can be sent to a manufacturer to be mass-produced and sold.

Because the industry is constantly developing new technology and experimenting with new ideas, designing and constructing robots requires a lot of patience. "You have to keep a cool head when things don't work because quite a lot of times they do not," says Kozlenko. "I had a professor that told me to fail as often as possible because that's how you learn, and that's very true in robotics."

Engineers are also expected to have extensive knowledge in related technology, software, and equipment. You'll typically need a B.S. in electrical, mechanical, or robotics engineering to get into the field. Carnegie Mellon is a top choice in the U.S. for students looking to get into robotics, says Bill Townsend, president & CEO of Barrett Technology, as is Georgia Tech, the University of Washington in Seattle, MIT, and Stanford.

Students planning to enter robotics should enjoy working with their hands, says Townsend, and possess a love of things that move. Townsend recommends discussing with professors possible research projects they may need help with. This kind of real-world experience can help break you into a very competitive industry. That's how Kozlenko snagged his summer internship at NASA: His professor was the director of space science at Goddard Space Flight Center-where he led a team of four in the design and construction of a calibration fixture for a satellite mounted X-ray telescope.

Outside of work, Kozlenko tinkers as much as possible to continue learning. "I always have two or three unfinished projects that I have lying around, just to keep my mind going, and every now and then something I've been working on for fun becomes very relevant for something I'm doing at work."

Working with robots has helped Kozlenko appreciate that tasks humans can do with very little effort can be extremely difficult to recreate with robots-and that robotics is an industry that is constantly advancing. "I would be super thrilled to have a robot help me out in a way that a human could. Like how the robotic arm in 'Iron Man' holds a flashlight for [main character Tony Starks]. I think that would be when I would step back and be like 'Woah, I'm in the future.'"

Industry Snapshot: iDoctor Though the global recession stunted the need for robots and robotics engineers in the manufacturing and automotive industries, robotics has grown in a variety of other sectors, such as semiconductors, electronics and photonics, food and beverage, and life sciences. Bill Townsend, president & CEO of Barrett Technology, says health care will be a particularly fast-growing sector of robotics. "Over the next ten years, robots will be overlapping workspaces with people and working in assisted-living areas, hospitals, and rehabilitation centers, working literally hand in hand with people."

One of the world's most advanced humanoid robots, ASIMO, can walk forward and backward, up and down stairs, turn while walking, and is capable of voice and facial recognition, connecting to the Internet, and mapping its environment. The goal is for ASIMO to help humans who are elderly and/or physically challenged. "There's a lot of people retiring all at once, and for that reason there's a whole lot of money being poured into robotics in order to help people live independently and to help take care of them," says Daniel H. Wilson, author of How to Survive a Robot Uprising.

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