Let me take you to a classroom of an elementary school in Daegu, southeast of Seoul: Students are working at their desks as the teacher reads books to them and calls out instructions. It’s a typical classroom scene except that the teacher, about 1-metre tall, is made of plastic and computer circuits.
Confused? Well, it’s an English language class taught by a robot teacher that rolls around the classroom on wheels, asking questions in English and dancing to music. The egg-shaped robot called ‘Engkey’ is linked to and controlled remotely by an English teacher outside the classroom (located as far away as Australia) whose face appears on the screen of the robot. Besides being popular with children, Engkey is a cost-effective way to help address South Korea’s shortage of qualified native-English speaking teachers.
Robotics, which has grown far beyond the realms of science fictions, has always been a fascinating subject. From simple robot toys to industrial robotics, robotics technology is today firmly entrenched into our day-to-day life and impacts our way of life much more than we think. The advancement in recent technologies continues to bring cyber and physical worlds together,enabling the robotics industry to grow even faster.
Let’s explore a career in robotics engineering.
Know the field
Let us first define the terms ‘robot’and ‘robotics.’ According to the RobotInstitute of America (1979), a robot is “A reprogrammable, multifunctionalmanipulator designed to move material,parts, tools or specialised devicesthrough various programmed motionsfor the performance of a variety oftasks.”
Webster defines a robot as “An automatic device that performs functions normally ascribed to humans or a machine in the form of a human.” More generally, it is a machine that functions in place of a living person.
Now coming to robotics, it’s a multidisciplinary area which integrates intelligent control,communications,computer vision, mechatronics, sensorfusion, design and many otheraspects on a single platform for a better service. This branch of technology is related to the sciences of electronics, engineering, mechanics and software.
“Robotics is a highly technical field of advanced engineering and technology. It involves practical skills backed by higher-end theory. It calls for innovative thinking, application and creativity— skills which are not found in textbooks,” explains Dr G. Venkatesh, adjunct professor, Global Academy of Technology, and managing director, Bangalore Robotics.
“Robotics involves practical skills backed by higher-end theory. It calls for innovative thinking, application and creativity.”
—skills which are not found in textbooks.
Saptarshi Chatterjee, head-strategic alliance and marcom, Robosoft Systems, defines robotics as an amalgamation of the latest engineering breakthroughs in embedded systems, ICT, mechanical product design, bioengineering, computer science and nanotechnology among others.
Industry optimistic about 2011
Robots are used in a diverse range of industries today, including automotive, aerospace, electronics and computers, industrial machinery, telecommunications, medicine, manufacturing, agriculture, mining and textiles. More than 120,000 industrial robots were shipped in 2010, with electronics, automotive and metal industries being the main sales drivers. The trend is likely to continue into 2011 and beyond with a further 10-15 per cent increase in robot sales.
The notion that the prospects for the robotics industry are looking up in 2011 is also shared by others in the supply chain, not just robot manufacturers.
According to the IFR (International Federation of Robotics) Quarterly Statistics on Industrial Robots, the robotics industry is capitalising on the increasing demand for automation, especially in the growing Asian markets with China on top. Though robot sales to India are still not much, it is a promising market with great demand for industrial robots in a wide range of industries.
Opportunities for students
According to Pulkit Gaur, chief technology officer and founder, Gridbots Technologies, “Robotics is going to be one of the biggest industrial catalysts and major factors for growth in production and material handling facilities. Engineering students can avail this opportunity by selecting this as one of the career options.”
With time, there is going to be an increase in the job availability in this sector. “Most of the production, manufacturing and material handling industries are looking for alternatives to increase the productivity, which will soon get reflected in the jobs sector with the adoption of robotic systems in these industries,” quips Gaur.
Robotics can be applied to a variety of tasks that we need to perform within and outside our home. “Apart from special applications like handling hazardous situations and tasks that need high accuracy and speed, a new area of robotics called ‘service robotics’ has begun to develop. It targets medical, space, underwater and housekeeping applications,” shares Jayakrishnan T., director and country manager, Energid Robotics & Machines Vision.
“Obviously, these applications may demand smart vision, smooth fluid motion, interaction with the environment and artificial intelligence. This must create a very favourable situation for students (who are seeking a career in robotics) to apply their skills in order to support the developments in this connection,” he adds.
“India as a country is poised for robotics and automation engineering revolution. Every industry in India is looking for some form of automation technologies to become competitive,” says Dr Bijay Kumar Rout, assistant professor, mechanical engineering department and coordinator, Center for Robotics and Intelligent Systems (CRIS), BITS Pilani.
Know your role
Robotics is multi-disciplinary and so are the job opportunities in this area. This integrative field offers jobs in three major sectors—design and manufacturing of robotic systems, embedded and control system, and software control and simulation environments for these robotic systems.
A lot of responsibilities do come up while working in these sectors. As compared to traditional systems where machine components are decoupled, in this field all the systems function in tandem with other components. So while designing or working on robotic systems, one has to take care of a lot of factors, cautions Gaur.
Robotics engineering combines elements of mechanical, electrical and software engineering in the design, testing and development of computer-controlled robots used to assist humans.
As an electronics professional, you may find a place in the design section of a robot manufacturing firm. Fresh electronics graduates can be considered for some of the positions in the creative designing and problem-solving sections. They may have to work on electronic designs and embedded programs for robotic assemblies like actuators, sensors and interface circuitries and develop innovative graphical user interfaces (GUIs) and control mechanisms for the robots.
In the manufacturing section, graduates may play important roles in maintenance and operation. Microchip manufacturers recruit robotics and artificial intelligence specialists. Employment opportunities also exist in education and research domains. Electronics departments in most of the IITs and CSIR labs offer research fellowships in robotics and artificial intelligence.
As a robotics engineer, you may find placement in robot programming, troubleshooting and maintenance. Fellowships are also available in research institutes, emphasising on humanoid robotics and computational neuroscience.
Those with overall knowledge in this area may work as CAD/CAM engineers, automation engineers, hydraulics and pneumatic system engineers, engineers for numerically controlled systems and microprocessors, robotic system programmers and maintenance engineers.
The skills and knowledge of these engineers may be used to design robots to carry out hazardous or repetitive tasks in mining or chemical waste disposal. For instance, robots are being deployed at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan which was recently damaged by a massive earthquake and tsunami and is still too dangerous for humans to tread.
These engineers may also be employed to create life-saving surgical equipment; help design advanced toys, games and household appliances for the commercial industry; or develop experimental robots in the research sector for use in defence, surveillance and aerospace programmes.
Apart from this, there are various opportunities in procurement, manufacturing and technical sales in robotic companies.
In India, very few universities offer degree programmes in robotics engineering. There are very few IITs where M.Tech degrees in robotics engineering are offered. Therefore these tasks are performed with the help of core engineering disciplines such as mechanical, EEE, instrumentation and computer science
How to get the entry?
A technical degree (diploma or graduation) may qualify you for a job in this field but it may not be enough to get you a decent profile. As recruiters also look for specialised R&D skills in a postgraduate or doctorate applicant, you need to have a knack for the field. Most employers train interns directly in various areas of robotics.
“In India, very few universities offer degree programmes in robotics engineering. There are very few IITs where M.Tech degrees in robotics engineering are offered. Therefore these tasks are performed with the help of core engineering disciplines such as mechanical, EEE, instrumentation and computer science,” informs Dr Rout. Courses in robotics are offered by institutes like IIT Kanpur; National Institute of Technology, University of Hyderabad; Kuka Training Centre, Pune; Jadavpur University, Kolkata; BITS Pilani; Sri Sathya Sai Institute of Higher Learning, Prasanthinilayam in Tamil Nadu; and PSG College of Technology, Coimbatore.
“The remuneration in robotics is at par with any other top-rated field like aerospace and networking. At the same time, the matrix for fixing the salary for a particular position follows the same pattern as for any other IT-related position to be mutually beneficial for the employer and the employee,” says Jayakrishnan.
“The difference is much higher for an experienced candidate as it is not very easy to get the right combination to match the position. Anyhow, due to the technical content of the job, the package is definitely on the higher side as far as IT jobs are concerned,”he adds.
Mel Siegel, an associate research professor in the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU), shares the same view: “As in other technical fields, salaries are good even for beginners in technical jobs, becoming excellent as people move into managerial jobs. A few of our graduates became quite wealthy when their entrepreneurial activities culminated in selling the small companies that they founded to large companies that wanted their product lines and expertise.” Apart from graduate professionals, the field offers a decent starting salary in the range of Rs 10,000 to 25,000 per month to diploma holders.
Most recruiters are from the automation industry, doling out intelligent systems and autonomous systems involving highly advanced engineering and technology. Most of their products are for military and defence applications.
Automobile companies account for 70 per cent of robotics applications in India. Tata Motors, Hyundai Motors, Reliance Industries, Mahindra & Mahindra and Ashok Leyland have designated departments to handle the programming and functioning of robotics.
According to Dr Venkatesh, “The focus is not on the production industry but on the research sector that is putting out amazing innovative applications involving advanced engineering techniques.”
“Robotics is going to be one of the biggest industrial catalysts and major factors for growth in production and material handling facilities. Engineering students can avail this opportunity by selecting robotics as one of the career options.”
Dr Rout informs, “Companies like Texas Instruments (TI), Intel, Cypress, Infineon and STMicroelectronics, which are mostly into IC design, visit the BITS Pilani campus regularly.” Major international players in robotics like Energid Technologies,iRobot Corporation, Kuka Robotics Corporation, ABB Robotics, Fanuc and Motoman Robotics have their presence in India.
Pari Robotics, Robosoft Systems, ThinkLABS and Gridbots Technologies are some of the domestic players in the field of robotics.
Besides, several small and medium enterprises (SMEs) are also mulling over investing in robotics to increase their global competitiveness. Companies look for different requirements while hiring a robotics engineer: Design and development capability in the domains of mechanical, manufacturing or electronics engineering, or as simple as operating and programming a specific robot for various needs.
Jayakrishnan explains, “Obviously, the requirements in this field necessitate a quality learning centered around the fundamentals of physics, dynamics and mathematics in general. Specific to our company, we would like engineers to have some hardware integration experience and, of course, good software coding skills and vision algorithm knowledge too. Another thing is making the software easy to use from a non-coder standpoint. So the ability to create a good user interface (human factors) to simplify the process is always in demand.”
“As far as freshers are concerned, the amount of hands-on experience with robotic hardware and integration would depend on the student’s desire as well as the quality of the institution Apart from the knowledge acquired from the institution, a shorter learning curve with good grasping, strong mathematics and ability to conceptualise a solution are important.
As India excels in software, we should be able to apply this excellence to robotics as it grows in global significance,”he adds.
However, “At present, this professionally advanced industry is facing a severe lack of intelligent and skilled workers. It is the rampant state of the wrong people in the wrong place. The technical industry is handicapped due to the lack of relevant workforce and has to make-do with leftovers from the software industry,” shares Dr Venkatesh.
“Companies look for practical, creative and innovative engineers who can integrate technology into reallife applications. This is just a dream as yet, as there is a lot of technology around and a lot less implementation,”he adds.
From classroom to industry
Recruiters often have to spend their valuable time and resources in preparing freshers for specific jobs. This is usually because the candidates’ knowledge of robotics is from a notional perspective only. So take up some industry-oriented project or internship. Various companies (in both public and private sectors) accommodate finaland pre-final-year students in their live projects.
At the same time, keep yourself updated with the latest technologicaltrends to get an edge over your competitors.
The author is from EFY Bureau, New Delhi