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The Real Steel: Robotics Careers Ready to Boom

By John R. Platt

Do you have a robot in your home or office yet? If not, you probably will soon. The robotics industry is in a major growth mode, not only in terms of sales, but also in size. At the same time, it is also creating growth around itself. According to a November 2011 report from the market research firm Metra Martech, the robotics industry will create one million new jobs over the next five years.

Those million new jobs won't all be for people designing and building new robots; many of them will be in industries that will benefit from robotics either directly (manufacturing, for example) or indirectly (restaurant workers or other service industries). But within engineering, robotics companies are hiring, and many organizations report that they are actually having trouble finding enough quality employees.

Robotics: One Word, Multiple Industries, Multiple Skills

Unlike some other engineering disciplines, robotics is not a monolithic industry with a single career path. Instead, robotics falls into three main industries manufacturing, service and defense and a wide range of jobs and tasks, including mechanical engineering, software, testing, and a whole lot more.

"A wide array of skills is necessary to develop these robotics systems," says Jon Bornstein, manager of the Army Research Laboratory's Robotics Collaborative Technology Alliance. "Hardware, software, actuation, mobility in complex environments, mechanical engineering, power, control...all of those will be wrapped up in robotics."

Even small and "simple" robots draw from a wide range of engineering disciplines, says Henrik Christensen, director of the Center for Robotics and Intelligent Machines at Georgia Institute of Technology. "Even with a very basic example, such as a vacuum cleaner, you need a mechanical engineer for design, an electrical engineer for the controls, a computing engineer for the software, a biomedical engineer to understand the human factors, and an aerospace engineer to provide critical performance. They all have very important roles."

Since no one person can embody all of those skill sets, robotics involves highly collaborative work. "It's an advantage if you have people that are project oriented and are good at working in teams," Christensen says. "You need to work in multidisciplinary teams, and you need to appreciate that we all bring something to the table to create a successful product."

Where the Growth Is

No matter where you look in robotics, things are expanding. "I just see unbounded growth," says Matthew Mason, director of the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University. "And it will be growing for a long time."

Each segment of robotics is growing at a different rate and for different reasons, says Christensen. The service industry has grown tremendously over the past 5 to 10 years: "We've gone from no robots in homes to about 5 million." Defense has also grown, thanks in no small part to the current military environment, but that inspires growth in other areas. "The fact that we have deployed 10,000 robotic vehicles in Iraq and Afghanistan in the past two years has generated a tremendous amount of interest," he says. And robots continue to be used more and more in manufacturing, where they will actually create jobs. "We're going to see more manufacturing come back to the United States, where robots will help us better control quality and intellectual property."

Meanwhile, a large portion of the robotics industry remains within the United States, with approximately 60 percent of the service industry and 80 percent of the military industry located here. The only exception, says Christensen, is robots for manufacturing, for which the biggest companies are located in Germany and Japan.

Beyond that, "The good news is that the service applications for robotics are growing faster in the United States than elsewhere," Christensen says. "Another bit of good news is that the only widely used medical robot in the world is from the United States." But he warns that competition is growing, spurred on by heavy investment in countries like South Korea.

So How Do You Get In?

This one everyone agreed on: if you're under 18, get involved in the FIRST Robotics Competition. It's a great way to gain experience in every aspect of robotics and the product life cycle.

If you're in college, you could get a degree in robotics, but that might not be the best path, says Christensen. Instead, consider a degree in mechanical, electrical, computing, biomedical or aerospace engineering. "We asked industry, and they said for a bachelor's degree, people should take one of the traditional disciplines. You'll get a deep enough foundation that will last you a lifetime."

Once you have that, look into broadening your scope so you have knowledge across at least three of the five engineering disciplines. "For example," says Christensen, "if you want to build medical robots, then biomedical and control engineering are important. If you're designing cockpits for next-generation aero-vehicles, then you need biomedical, computing and aerospace." He says that being multidisciplinary is an absolute necessity at Georgia Tech.

If you're already working in another area of engineering, Christensen says there are numerous continuing education courses available to help you become more robotics oriented.

Robotics Is Broader Than You Might Think

Amazingly, the people who understand robotics are highly valued in multiple industries, including places you might not expect. As an example, look at the recent alumni of Carnegie Mellon's Robotics Institute. "Some of our graduates are in industry," says Mason. "One is at Microsoft, another is at Facebook, and quite a few have gone off to work in computer vision or computer graphics." Still others are employed in the toy industry, or on the other end of the spectrum, at universities conducting research. He says that several have been employed as software engineers by Google, including a few who, getting back to robotics, are working on Google's autonomous vehicles project.

Why the breadth of jobs? "When you say robotics, people first think of industrial robots," Mason says. "But we think of it as all of the ways that computers can better interact intelligently with the real world."

At the same time, the robotics industry employs a very wide range of people, some of whose specialties might be surprising. "There's a great need for people in computer science, electronics, and physics," says Bornstein. "We also employ a large number of psychiatrists. We want a robot to have a mental picture of what people are doing around it." Psychiatrists can also look at how people interact with robots to optimize the way humans and devices work together.

And while the hardware is the most visible piece of a robot, the need for software engineers is paramount. "Look at the autonomous cars being developed by Google and Mercedes," says Will Schroder, CEO of the open-source software company, Kitware. "Some of those vehicles have 100 million lines of code. That's a lot of software. The future will be driven by software and specialties within computer science."

If you're thinking of getting into robotics, and you're not sure which of these many areas is for you, "go with your heart," says Christensen. "If you do something that you feel motivated to do and you're interested in, you do a better job and you have a better career."




Comments on this story may be emailed directly to Today's Engineer or submitted through our online form.


John R. Platt is a freelance writer and entrepreneur, as well as a frequent contributor to Today's Engineer, Scientific American, Mother Nature Network and other publications.


Copyright 2012 IEEE

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