There are many reasons why someone might become a robotics engineer — someone who designs, builds and tests robots and the platforms they run on. For some, it’s so they can say they had a hand in the future. Others may just like to create new things and challenge themselves to find solutions to complicated puzzles, like how to develop a robotic hand that can grasp objects much like humans are able to do.

But for some robotics engineers, like Jinxing Li, an assistant professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering at Michigan State University, their interest in pursuing robotics is more philosophical, reflective and rooted in the natural world.

What Is a Robotics Engineer?

A robotics engineer designs, builds and tests robots and robotic platforms. Robotics engineers typically need to be skilled in math and be curious about the world around them.

“Building something which can replicate ourselves or other creatures is an intrinsic desire of human beings and an intrinsic curiosity for myself as well,” Li told Built In. “As a result, mother nature is always the biggest inspiration to build robotics.” 

For Li, whose work has focused on the development of microrobots — essentially tiny robots that have the potential to treat disease and infection — robotics is not only a means to “understand ourselves as life”; it’s also a way to save lives.

 

What Does a Robotics Engineer Do?

Robotics engineers wear many different hats — designer, builder, tester, tinkerer, teacher. They also work in many different industries, building all kinds of robots ranging from autonomous mobile robots and collaborative robots that work alongside humans in warehouses to robots that print skin — like the one Deanna Hood, a robotics engineer in Australia, helped develop.

In 2020, Hood moved to Sydney to work with surgeons to develop a robot that could print skin to help heal people with severe burns.

 

What Does a Robotics Engineer Do?

Robotics engineers have a hand in many industries and applications.

  • They design robots that can work alongside humans in factories or other industries like hospitality and healthcare. 
  • They build tiny robots for biomedical use cases like monitoring and treating disease. 
  • They also maintain robots and develop software so robots can operate autonomously. 

“It sounds like science fiction, but the robots that I helped design allow surgeons to 3D print a patient’s own skin cells directly into their wound, which, incredibly, triggers the body to ‘heal itself’ and regenerate new skin,” Hood told Built In. “It was both rewarding and fascinating to work alongside surgeons to design a product to save patients’ lives, especially because I go to do it using robots, coding and other technology that I love.”

Not all robotics engineers have such a direct impact on the health and well-being of other humans, like Hood and Li do. Some are working behind-the-scenes to get autonomous vehicles on the road or helping develop humanoid robots that can mow our lawns. Others are designing robots that can grab a specific product from a warehouse shelf, or working on social robots that can interact with humans.

“You don’t have to be a doctor, occupational therapist or teacher to help people — I’ve literally worked with all of them as a roboticist.”

But if a person really wants to help others in a way that can save lives, robotics is a good path.  

“Nearly every ‘caring profession’ these days relies on technology to help their clients and patients — like the skin-printing robot for burn surgeons, or a 3D bioprinter for cancer researchers I’ve worked on, or the robotic partner for children with learning difficulties,” Hood said. “You don’t have to be a doctor, occupational therapist or teacher to help people — I’ve literally worked with all of them as a roboticist.”

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Degrees and Skills Needed for Robotics Engineering

There’s not one single academic path into robotics engineering, though some disciplines, like math and electrical engineering, are more popular entryways into the field than others. And while technical skills are important, other attributes, like creativity, patience and the ability to work well with others, are equally important.  

When Hood was a child, she wasn’t much of an inventor. Hood was into math, she said, so much so that she skipped two grades in high school. Hood began college at 15, where she majored in the subject, adding electrical engineering as a double major. From there she went on to receive her masters degree in robotics and computer vision.

As a student, Li also pursued electrical engineering, with the goal of one day making computer chips smaller and faster, he said. With semiconductor companies dominating the industry, he soon realized there weren’t many opportunities for researchers to have an impact. “But instead, there is plenty of room to miniaturize other devices beyond computers, such as medical devices and robotics.”

Degrees and Skills Robotics Engineers Need

  • Relevant degrees include: math, electrical and mechanical engineering, computer science, design (bachelors, masters and PhDs)
  • Relevant skills include: coding, creativity, patience, collaboration, curiosity, resilience

As a result, he went on to receive his PhD in nanoengineering, focusing on micro- and nano-scale robotics. Before getting into robotics, Li admits wishing he had been more skilled at coding. Coding, or programming, is what brings a robot to life, making it so they can perform the tasks they were designed to do.

While math and coding are important skill sets — C++ and Python are popular robotic programming languages — when it comes to robotics engineering, curiosity and collaboration have been the driving forces behind both Hood’s and Li’s success in the field. 

When Hood worked on the skin printing robot, it wasn’t a solitary mission or a single team of robotics engineers that developed it — she worked with a group of people from industrial designers to make it user-friendly to surgeons who provided feedback on those designs. “Collaboration on devices like that is a necessity,” she said.

And for Li, too, much of his day, outside the classroom, consists of collaborating on projects and fueling his curiosity.

“In the evening, I will sit quietly for a few hours reading and learning new publications and tech advances,” he said. “For me, it is the most relaxing moment to brainstorm new and wild ideas.”

 

An Evolving Skill Set for Robotics Engineers

Jordan Sun, vice president of product at Softbank Robotics, spends his workday working with product and engineering teams to ensure the company’s robots, like their cobot, Whiz, are up and running. When it comes to the robotics engineers he collaborates with, he’s witnessed an evolution of sorts when it comes to skill set — basically, they’re not so singularly focused on one platform or functionality. 

The industry is more complex now, he said, especially when it comes to cobots. He and his team have to ensure that they don’t make things harder for their customers, but generate value by neutralizing pain points, he said, while making sure the robot continues to work in a stable and safe way.  

“I really want folks to have a breadth of experience and knowledge, in terms of not just working with one type of platform, but across platforms,” Sun told Built In. “There’s so much to be learned beyond just working on a robotic arm to also having some experience and autonomy, whether it’s outdoor, or indoor, or having experience working with software engineers, or as a software engineer, and computer scientists.”

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Responsibilities of a Robotics Engineer

When it comes to day-to-day responsibilities of a robotics engineer, they can range anywhere from writing grant proposals and collaborating with design and product teams, to coming up with answers to seemingly impossible questions, like in Hood’s case: How do you ensure the robot you’re working on knows exactly where to print new skin on a patient?

“In general, I develop the ‘brains’ of new and innovative devices used by doctors, occupational therapists and biomedical researchers,” Hood said. “On the skin-printing robot, my focus was the ‘thinking’ problems that would allow the robot to quickly deliver 3D bioprinted regenerative cell therapy onto the patient’s wound, no matter what shape the wound is.”

Hood describes those types of questions as typical problems found in the field, essentially, “how to perceive a complex dynamic environment, and then deciding how to act accordingly — just in different contexts.”

 

Careers for Robotics Engineers

While the career options for robotics engineers can vary from teaching to the development of robots and robotic platforms on both the hardware and software sides — or a mix of both — the types of projects robotics engineers can choose to work on is almost limitless.  

“‘You can work on anything’ is the strength of all technology careers, but is also what makes the impact of them hard to explain to young people who want to change the world,” Hood said. “‘Robotics’ by itself is an abstract field, but that’s the ‘what,’ not the ‘why.’ No commercial robot is ever developed without a clear impact on society — a ‘why.’”

Collaborative robotics is one area that seems to be experiencing growth, as companies working in logistics and other industries like manufacturing increasingly turn to cobots, and other types of robots, to automate tedious tasks and fill gaps in the labor market. According to Sun, of Softbank Robotics, cobots are getting a lot of attention right now.

“I think the market’s only going to get more interesting as various SaaS players enter this space, not just hardware players,” Sun said.

“‘Robotics’ by itself is an abstract field, but that’s the ‘what,’ not the ‘why.’ No commercial robot is ever developed without a clear impact on society — a ‘why.’”

Autonomous vehicles are another area where robotics engineers can have an impact, as well as agriculture and construction.

If you’re just entering the field, Hood suggests starting small and doing “things people can’t stop you from doing,” she said. 

“Build your own stuff, even if it’s simple,” she said.

She adds that online courses — think offerings from the likes of Coursera — as well as simulations, events, volunteering and contributing to open source projects like ROS, which she contributed to, are good actions to take. 

“All of these things have helped build my technical ability, as well as valuable connections to the people that make the robotics industry happen,” Hood said. 

And if you want to help other people like those who work in healthcare and education do, you don’t have to become a teacher or doctor. “Technology is what underpins innovation in all of these industries today,” Hood said. “And as a result, the world actually needs altruistic technologists, too.”

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