I have often been asked: “how do I get into robotics?”. Well, here are a few related (and not so related) thoughts on that.
The first thing you want to look at is what kind of robots you are interested in: Industrial or Research.
Industrial robots, for now, tend to be concentrated in manufacturing. These are the ABB arms, Kinova stock handling, even Roomba vacuums, etc. Usually, these are fairly “dumb” robots in that they can be programmed to do a fairly simple set of tasks, over and over again. For this market segment, there are fairly entrenched standards of operation and design, others would know more about this than I. The product cycle tends to be fairly long, but the products are very reliable.
For Research robots, I am talking about robots which are not yet fully implemented in ongoing work. These robots are the ones that tend to be one-offs, in military, mining, human interaction, research, etc. This industry is currently growing faster, and has the potential to replace all current “dumb” robots. For this industry, a good systems level understanding is key. Of course, you need to be an expert in your field, but understanding the basics of software, mechanical and UX is a good idea as well. This concept was introduced to me at a talk a long time ago, as “T-shaped people”.
Another aspect that I would suggest is simply to get rid of the idea of “work-life balance”. Now I do not mean work yourself to death, (though there is the temptation to just fix that last bug before bedtime) I mean that a growing, rapidly changing field like robotics requires you to live and breathe it. Subscribe to journals, talk with industry experts, read blogs, reports (Automaton is a favorite of mine), make little robots in your spare time. Turn the question “how do I get into robotics?” into more of “where else can I learn more about robotics?”.
On the software side, I strongly suggest learning ROS, as it is a powerhouse in tying together the research robotics community, it’s free, and runs on little stuff like Arduino and Raspberry Pi.
Lastly, I would read some of Ray Kurzweil’s books. His “How to Create a Mind” and “The Singularity Is Near” touch on the subject of AI and the future of robotics.
Past, Present & Future
I like to think that the robotics industry today is as the computer industry was in the 80s. Just getting out of the military/industry and starting to make an appearance in everyday life. Right now, any garage hobbyist, with a little effort, can compete on the world stage in robotics. You don’t yet need millions of dollars to make an impact. In fact, many of the traditional companies trying to get into “mobile robots” and smart robotics are doing very poorly despite pouring in millions. The first “killer app” for robotics in the home seems to be the Roomba, but the next one will be much more serious. Figuring that out will make someone very rich. (like Bill Gates and the spreadsheet).
Another aspect is the decreasing cost and increasing power of computing and sensors. It is now fairly inexpensive to make a robot that can use depth sensing cameras (Kinect) to map a house, look up object data online, and navigate to pick up an object.
The downside is, both actuators and batteries have stagnated quite severely in comparison, so mobile robots remain weak and short-lived.
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