The robotics industry is fast-growing with seemingly unlimited potential. Robots can assist with medical procedures, biological research, food sorting, and even vacuuming our homes, and their numbers are increasing. The robotics industry was valued at $34 billion in 2019, with experts predicting exponential growth in the next five years. In fact, global spending on robotics and drones is expected to top $241 billion U.S. dollars by 2023.
This growth means it’s an excellent time to consider a career as a roboticist. Average annual salaries are around $88,000 per year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics—which groups the role within the mechanical engineering field—and robotics jobs are becoming increasingly available. What are those jobs, though, and what does a roboticist do? There’s no easy answer to that question, says Lawson Wong, assistant professor in the Khoury College of Computer Sciences at Northeastern.
“The interesting, and in some ways most challenging, part of robotics is that it spans so many different levels,” he says.
Here are some of the career paths a roboticist can take in this multi-faceted field.
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What Does a Roboticist Do?
Roboticists are generally involved in the design, programming, construction, and testing of robots. They can work on any stage of development, from creating software to building hardware and troubleshooting the finished product. It’s not necessary to have in-depth knowledge of every stage, however.
“There are many places where you can join the team,” Wong says. “It doesn’t matter if you’re excellent at building but not so great with software. We get experts from all different fields, and we need them to work together.”
In general, roboticists work within the computer science, mechanical engineering, and electrical engineering fields, bringing the required experience to a robotics team.
Roboticists specializing in computer science are responsible for programming the robot to perform specific tasks and behave in a particular way. Their work dictates how the robot will interpret the world, move, see, and act.
In addition to coding and software development skills, a computer scientist may also need familiarity with artificial intelligence, which is becoming a common feature in robots. An autonomous car, for example, will need to learn from its environment and make decisions accordingly, requiring significant machine learning expertise.
Mechanical engineers build the physical system that makes up the robot, from its motors and actuators to the body components. They also develop safety measures, physical operating protocols, and sensors. For these specialists, experience with CAD and drafting software is essential to finding a career building robots, as is the ability to manufacture parts and an understanding of materials engineering. These skills help mechanical engineers develop customized robots that can accurately perform tasks.
Electrical engineering is the final component of robotics. These engineers create the nervous system of the robot through embedded systems, circuit programming, and other tools that help the robot move. Proper electrical engineering ensures that a robot can carry out programmed tasks by moving, picking things up, and performing other actions automatically.
Becoming a Roboticist
Because roboticists can enter the field via various, diverse disciplines, there’s no set career path or list of courses you need to take. As Wong notes, the multidisciplinary nature of robotics makes teamwork essential. If you’re still deciding on a career path, however, the following skills can help you explore your options:
- If you’re interested in the computer science side of robotics, learn a coding language like C, C++, or Python, which are among the most common in the field.
- Get involved in the design and building process of a robot. If you’re in school, look for classes that incorporate this into the curriculum or partner with a professor in their lab. You can also research robotics teams and clubs, which can give you excellent peer to peer experience.
- Learn a version control system, such as Git, which helps keep track of changes to code.
- Familiarize yourself with Robot Operating System, or ROS, a framework for robotic app development.
- Learn Gazebo, a physics simulator that allows roboticists to test algorithms, design robots, and perform regression testing in real-world environments.
Earning a degree in robotics is one way to develop your skills in the field through expert guidance from professors and peer connections with students in various specialties.
Pursuing a Degree in Robotics
Earning an advanced degree is a key step when pursuing a career as a roboticist. While it’s possible to study solely mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, or computer science, choosing a specialized robotics program allows you to learn about each of these areas.
“It’s a very broad field, and the point of a degree program in robotics is to expose you to as many facets of it as possible,” Wong says.
Northeastern fully integrates each discipline of robotics into its master’s in robotics degree, offering the opportunity to take electives in mechatronics, AI, sensing and navigation, and more to create a unique degree program.
No matter their academic journey, students directly interact with multiple robotic systems, from autonomous cars to research-focused robots, throughout their education. In Wong’s most recent class, for example, teams of students programmed platforms commonly found in robotics research projects to complete various tasks of their choosing.
Students can further develop their career by taking on thesis projects, working with faculty members who operate labs within the university’s Interdisciplinary Science and Engineering Complex (ISEC), and taking on co-ops at businesses in the Boston area and beyond.
“The robotics industry has a relatively large presence here in Boston compared to many other places,” Wong says. The city is consistently ranked one of the best in the nation for robotics, thanks in part to the presence of powerhouses like Amazon Robotics, Boston Dynamics, and iRobot.
Explore Northeastern’s master’s in robotics program for more information about how earning your degree can launch your robotics career.