When thinking about a career in robotics engineering, the idea of advanced space rovers or futuristic AI machines may come to mind. However, this job title is more typically reserved for the manufacturing automation industry. The good news: several studies can lead to a career in robotics.
Historically, automation dates back to Henry Ford’s automobile assembly line. The industry researches and develops refined motion and control systems to simplify menial tasks and reduce manufacturing costs. With the recent commercialization of micro-electronics, the industry has begun to include electronic components.
Nonetheless, these electronics still use mechanics, automation, and control systems. For the most part, the current industry remains focused on manufacturing automation and the majority of robots are used in automobile assembly. But these devices are also used in aerospace, agriculture, medicine, military, security, manufacturing, and more.
Although the manufacturing automation industry has typically focused on motion science, mechanical engineers also have a role. With the inclusion of control systems, electrical engineers and control system designers are now involved as well. As computers and software have advanced, the industry began incorporating computer engineers and scientists. Today, the sector is a dynamic mix of problem-solvers from multiple disciplines.
Advanced robots require input from several specializations to function well, so this makes sense. For example, an automatic lawnmower needs to be “aware” of its surroundings, run properly and rotate its blade, and decipher where to move next. This requires design and control systems experts, mechanical engineers, and computer scientists — at minimum.
The majority of individuals working in robotics had arrived through a mixture of bachelor and masters’ degree programs, typically in one of the following sectors:
Mechanical engineering: the study of engineering physics, mathematics, and materials science principles to analyze and design mechanical devices. Subtopics such as materials engineering, mechanics, and manufacturing are center to industrial robotics. Often mechanical engineering programs will have specialization in mechatronics or robotics but will be concentrated more on physical design and actuation.
Electrical engineering: the study, design, and application of equipment and systems that use electronics, low-level programming, embedded systems, and control theory. Generally, electrical engineering courses will also offer specializations in robotics or automation, which will be focused around the control of robots relatively than the mechanical design.
Computer science: the study of computational systems, including software systems and high-level programming. Often these programs will include robotic programming subjects, such as design and artificial intelligence.
Additionally, there are many other programs students can take that may lead to robotics work. For instance, a quick look at the background of the top 25 women in robotics includes the study of: physics (such as with Aude Billard and Arianna Menciassi), cognitive science, psychology (Leila Takayama), and sociology (Astrid Weiss). Other big stars in robotics have also started from qualifications such as pure mathematics (Rodney Brooks), civil engineering (Raj Reddy), and law (Ryan Calo).
Robotics is not a streamlined or straightforward career choice. It is interdisciplinary, which provides benefits. This means experts from different fields can work together, continually offering new perspectives. This also means students from various educational backgrounds can potentially find work in the industry.
The right choice
With so many potential routes to working with robotics, which pathway is ideal? Generally, it’s best to choose the program of most interest — after all, a lifelong career should be one that is interesting and enjoyable. So, if you prefer electronics perhaps choose an electrical engineer program over one in software development.
Also, becoming an expert in an associated field may present more career options going forward. For instance, a degree in mechanical engineering can also present opportunities in aerospace or power generation.
Once in college, consider developing your knowledge of robotics by joining a robotics unit, working on personal robotics projects, and taking appropriate electives. Also, although a bachelor’s degree can get you a career in that field, having a masters’ degree truly sets you apart.
Those currently working in robotics engineering typically fall into one (or more) of these three skill sectors:
- Computer-aided drafting & design: These engineers design and develop the blueprints for robotic systems by using cutting-edge 3D modeling applications (such as Blender, AutoCAD, Inventor, and SolidWorks) to design plans and schematics.
- Construction: This includes the hands-on construction of robots, with expertise in the manufacturing tools and methods used to build robots from the ground up. Frequently, these professionals use 3D printing platforms (such as Roboze and 3DP).
- Research & development: Every robotic system had to begin with R&D. Some of these researchers operate in academia, wielding soft skills in critical thinking, investigation, and communication to teach others.
Regardless of the role, however, the end result is very much the same: to produce robots that fulfill duties more efficiently, cost-effectively, and safely than humans.
Getting the real experience of working with robots, programming, electronics, and mechanics is essential to understand the theory behind it. It also allows students to find out which parts of robotics they are most interested in to pursue their future.
One of the best ways to get hands-on experience is to enter one of the many robotics tournaments, which are available for different ages and education levels. If students know others interested in robotics, why not get together and make a team and enter a competition?
If interested in robotic engineering, now is an excellent time to join this developing industry. And the best news is that you can do so through various different programs.