What skills do you need to work in robotics? Which subjects should you study?
These are popular questions among aspiring engineers and we can understand why. Robotics is the future and it involves so much more than just “building robots”.
In this post, we look at the various different paths you can take towards a career in robotics, as well as the interdisciplinary skillset developed by robotics engineers.
Robotics engineers are learners.
Robotics engineers are masters-of-all-trades.
Robotics engineers know a little bit about everything (at least, everything important to robotics).
They are the bridge between mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, computer science and even psychology.
To be a robotics engineer, you have to be great at learning and there are many reasons why robotics is a great choice for young engineers.
Robotics is not a straightforward career choice. It is a truly interdisciplinary career which makes it different from many traditional jobs.
You want to be a doctor? Study medicine. You want to build bridges? Study civil engineering. You want to work with robots? Well…..you could study electronics, computer science, biotechnology, manufacturing, cognitive science… there are loads of routes to a job in robotics.
What is good advice for someone who’s interested in robotics and needs to pick their school subjects. At the most basic level there are some core subjects which you need:
- Mathematics – This is a must. You don’t have to be John Nash but a good grasp of algebra and geometry are essential to all of the subjects which make up robotics.
- Physics (or another science) – Having a solid understanding of science is important for all branches of engineering. Physics is particularly useful because it gives grounding knowledge in energy, electrical circuits, mechanics, material science and other key topics for robotics. However, all sciences are useful as they teach how to apply mathematics to real world problems.
Other Useful Subjects
Every country has a different set of subjects that are taught in schools, so it’s difficult to specify a list which is applicable to everyone. So, instead here are the core skillset which is useful for robotics and some subjects which provide them:
- Computing and Programming – Programming is pretty important for robotics, so subjects like Computer Science and Information Systems are a great choice.
- Design and Technology – Subjects that can boost the practical side of engineering include Product Design, Graphic Communication, Technological Studies and Manufacturing.
- Specific Engineering Disciplines – Some schools provide subjects in specific engineering disciplines such as Automotive, Bioengineering, Electronics, Mechatronics and Mechanical engineering. All of these can be beneficial for aspiring roboticists.
Choosing a Degree in Robotics
At university, I chose a 5 year Masters degree in Robotics (which gave equal focus to the three core areas). At the time, I figured that was the way that people get into robotics. However, I was soon to find out that my route was far from standard. Most people working in robotics had arrived through one or a combination of the following routes, through a mixture of undergraduate and graduate degree courses.
Each route places the main focus of study on a different core part of robotics:
- “The Body” – Mechanical Engineering – This branch of engineering looks at the physical systems which make up a robot. Subtopics like mechanics, materials engineering and manufacturing are core to industrial robotics. Often mechanical engineering courses will have specialization in mechatronics or robotics, but will be focused more on physical design and actuation.
- “The Nervous System” – Electrical and Electronic Engineering – This branch of engineering gives a basis in electronics, embedded systems, low-level programming and control theory. Often electrical engineering courses will also provide specializations in robotics or automation, which will be centered around the control of robots rather than the mechanical design.
- “The Brain” – Computer Science – A lot of people in research seem to enter robotics through computer science. This trend is likely to continue as standard robotic hardware platforms become the norm. Common platforms remove the research focus from the physical hardware and instead concentrate on software and high-level programming. Often these courses will include robotic programming topics such as Artificial Intelligence and Software Design. It is usually at this level of study where a people with a background in psychology and related fields can enter robotics with a postgraduate Masters course.
There are also many other routes you could take to end up working in robotics. For example, just take a look at the top 25 women in robotics and you’ll find people who have started out studying Physics (like Arianna Menciassi and Aude Billard), Cognitive Science and Psychology (Leila Takayama) and even Sociology and Social Psychology (Astrid Weiss). Other big names in robotics have also started from degrees such as Pure Mathematics (Rodney Brooks), Law (Ryan Calo) and Civil Engineering (Raj Reddy).
Whatever path you choose, make sure you continue to develop your knowledge in all of the other areas as well. Of course, you are never going to be a leading expert in all of the subfields of robotics, but developing yourself into a competent computer scientist, electrical engineer and mechanical engineer will put you in a great position when you continue to specialize throughout your career.
The Importance of Extracurricular Fiddling
Take a look at the NASA career corner and you will get some great advice from robotics professionals on how to get started in robotics. Many of them recommend getting some extracurricular hands-on experience with robots throughout your education. Getting physical experience or fiddling with robots, electronics, programming and mechanics is essential to truly understand the theory behind it. It also allows you to find out which parts of robotics you are really most interested in.
One of the best ways to get hands-on experience is to enter one of the many robotics competitions, which are available for various age and education levels. If you know other people who are interested in robotics, why not get together a team and enter one? Alternatively Robot kits like Lego Mindstorms are a good place to start playing with robotics at home, as are embedded systems like Raspberry Pi.