Robotics engineers design robots, maintain them, develop new applications for them, and conduct research to expand the potential of robotics. This is a rapidly developing field, with advances in computing constantly opening up new possibilities for robotics applications. Manufacturing, the first industry to invest heavily in robotics, remains the primary employer in the area, but recent years have seen rapid expansion of research and engineering in robots for such applications as agriculture, mining, nuclear power-plant maintenance, and a variety of other fields.
The profession offers jobs for a wide range of temperaments. Visionary robotics engineers can work designing experimental mobile robots, with applications ranging from medical and military uses to designs aimed at creating vehicles capable of piloting themselves on other planets. More down-to-earth jobs involve designing new production-line robots, often with programmable arms, and maintaining and upgrading older production-line installations. Somewhere in between lie those engineers designing and producing robots for expanding but tested fields, such as self-piloting crop harvesters and automated nuclear-safety equipment. Robotics engineers must have the same disciplined attention to detail required of all engineers, but the relative novelty of the field puts an additional premium on creativity. It’s a safe bet that twenty years from now, robots will be employed in a vast range of new activities. The engineers who can best anticipate needs which can be successfully filled by robots, and who can work effectively in engineering teams to develop them, will be extremely successful in the field.
As in most engineering disciplines, graduate education is usually a necessity for advancement in the field. This can range from one to two years of additional master’s in electrical and/or mechanical engineering work for an operating engineer, to several years for the doctorate, which opens up jobs in design and research. The most sought-after jobs go to engineers with academic backgrounds that allow them to combine knowledge in computer science with applied physical sciences. As automated systems must be designed to optimally integrate into the production line, knowledge of the manufacturing environment in which the robot will operate is invaluable.
Robotics engineers tend to stay in the field. Professional mobility largely occurs between robotics manufacturing firms and their clients, with engineers leaving to oversee the robot operations of major clients. In addition, as new applications for robots appear, opportunities arise for engineers to move into these new branches of the field.