Whether the goal is to make repetitive or dangerous tasks less drudging, boost efficiency and productivity, or simply provide a means of entertainment, robotic engineering is pivotal to our ever-growing, technological world.
When you think of robots, it's hard to resist images of Hollywood characters like Wall-E, Robocop, and Marvin the Paranoid Android. Of course, these are fairly animated depictions of the future of technology and the world itself, but today's integration of mechanical and electronic components is making once-imagined technology more possible every day.
Today, the field of robotics needs engineers who can design intelligent electromechanical systems such as industrial robots, medical tools, and autonomous vehicles. Take Derek Scherer, for example, a robotic engineer who is currently developing the robot platform for a project called Therabot.
This robot functions in a way similar to how we employ therapy animals, says Scherer. A dog in the room of a recovering patient can help her mood tremendously. Similarly, the act of talking to an animal has shown some therapeutic value. The Therabot is designed to be responsive and comforting to the human in these sorts of scenarios.
Scherer puts his expertise to use in a variety of niches, including film. He has done animatronics (think dinosaurs, large animals, and mythical creatures) for Man of Steel, Elysium, and The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, where he has sculpted and painted fictional characters that can only be brought to life with special motors and mechanisms. Scherer thanks Star Wars, The Dark Crystal, and his memories of Disney's Haunted Mansion ride for inspiring him at a young age to get involved with robotics.
Robots have always been pretty special to me, says Scherer. During my graduate work, the interest led me into artificial intelligence. After getting a real taste for AI, natural language processing, machine learning, etc., I decided that what the machine thinks doesn't really amount to much if the system can't express it right to a person. Soon, the experiences that robots created for people (with movement, sound, expressions, gestures, and so on) became his focal point.
Doing the robot
According to CEO of Geisel Software, Brain Geisel, there are a number of ways to get involved with robotics. Earning a bachelor's degree in computer science, electrical engineering, or mechanical engineering is the best place to start. Some of Canada's most prestigious robotics-specific programs belong to the British Columbia Institute of Technology, University of Alberta, and University of Western Ontario.
The other way to enter robotics is directly from a similar field, says Geisel, who spent much of his career working on embedded projects for mobile storage applications. Having been a software engineer with a good handle on hardware, it was a good fit for the robotics industry where a crossbreed of disciplines is essential. Coming from a solid background in a mesh of technical disciplines is a great way to get into the industry.
He adds that the field is continuing to grow and diversify, especially since you can now work on everything from the robots that handle the warehouses to stock WalMart stores to assisting with a NASA (or private) mission to Mars. In fact, according to Geisel, robotics remains one of very few fields where the moon is a viable travel destination.
No need for a robotic personality
Don't get into robotics if you think ÔÇÿtrigonometry' is a bad word, Geisel advises. However, if you're the kind of person who loves immersing themselves in a complex problem, you're going to love robotics. There is a tendency to be a little idealistic about things, though. Keep a firm head on your shoulders and remember that it's still a job with ups and downs like any other field. It isn't all sitting around conceptualizing artificial intelligence beings ├á la Hollywood. For those ready to work hard, have a lot of fun, and invent something legitimately original, there's nothing quite like robotics.
Photo: Courtesy of Derek Sherer