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
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
"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
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
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
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
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
Robotics Is Broader Than You
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
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."
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.