A user's guide to robotics higher ed
Robots are invading college campuses, along with the students who want to learn how to build them.
To help those wannabe pioneers in self-driving cars and automated bartending, CNET News spoke with Colin Angle, CEO of consumer robotics company iRobot, to learn more about which schools the company looks at to recruit new talent, and to give an insider's perspective of some of the latest developments in this still-new academic discipline.
Because the thing that a roboticist can do for you is think about and help design the complete
system, but that makes you a generalist."
Robotics is a field with deep roots in research universities. iRobot's products, as well as other consumer roboware like the Lego MindStorms line, sprang from laboratories at Angle's alma mater, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Prospective college students interested in robotics should remember that the word "robotics" might not be used all that often in course descriptions.
When Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Worcester, Mass., launched an undergraduate robotics-engineering department in 2006, it was big news. WPI is a top-notch engineering school, and the nascent program has been so successful, it added a master's degree track this year. But Angle said the ability to actually major in robotics engineering is still the exception, not the rule.
"WPI is probably the first university in the country that has a major in robotics, and so that's kind of exciting," Angle said. "Typically, as a student interested in robotics, the challenge is to try to figure out how to piece together, within an engineering degree or a computer science degree, enough understanding of electrical, mechanical, and computer science disciplines to be able to do the system integration."
The balance between these three fields is different for every student, and an individual's customized expertise makes it possible to fill the highly specialized roles in any team that builds a robot.
"If you think about iRobot as an employer, we're not hiring strictly roboticists. Because the thing that a roboticist can do for you is think about and help design the complete system, but that makes you a generalist," Angle said. "Oftentimes, when you're trying to make a practical robot that can be thrown off buildings or be sold for low price points or whatever, you have the overall architecture, but you need real specialists in mechanical design or optimal power control or whatever that can come out of your basic master's or bachelor's or Ph.D. (program) in purely electrical engineering or computer science."
The choice can sometimes come down to two very different kinds of schools: a massive, long-established engineering program with ample funding and star faculty, or a small program where undergraduates can have a bigger and more hands-on role in projects. Both have merits.
The difference is perhaps best reflected in the lineup at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's high-profile competitions, annual challenges hosted by the Department of Defense's research and development arm, in which teams from universities and other institutions pit self-driving cars against one another in a race.
to make "Junior," a Volkswagen Passat modified to drive itself, was backed by Silicon Valley
powerhouses Google and Intel, among others. Although Junior crossed the finish line first in
the 2007 DARPA Urban Challenge at a former Air Force base in Oro Grande, Calif., a rival car
from CMU was faster overall.
Teams from the three universities Angle highlighted as the top ones to watch in anything robotics--MIT, Carnegie Mellon University, and Stanford University--typically perform extremely well. They're also well-funded both internally and by sponsors: after winning the 2005 DARPA Challenge with a car named Stanley, Stanford's teams have been sponsored by the likes of Google and Intel.
On the other hand, there are smaller players in the DARPA Challenge who might not get the prize money--and where teams usually have to actively raise funds for projects as a result--but where undergraduates can have a much bigger role in development. That means, in many cases, more hands-on experience at a higher level than in larger schools, where star faculty and doctoral candidates are the focus.
The engineering school at Cornell University, for example, has entered the annual DARPA Challenge with cars built by teams that consist almost exclusively of undergraduates. It's never won, and in 2005, Cornell's car was the first to drop out of the race when it malfunctioned and hit a barrier on a bridge. But even though it doesn't have the robotics star power of MIT or Stanford, iRobot's Angle said Cornell would certainly earn a spot on his list of the top places for an undergraduate to get a solid background in robotics.
"When you look at the DARPA Grand Challenge and what people hope to get out of it, I love Cornell's approach," Angle said. "It's to get the students to build these things."
| 10 colleges for the robotics-inclined |
Some colleges have robotics "star power," while others have smaller programs that are a bit more hands-on. Most reputable programs are in the Bay Area or Bay State, according to a conversation with iRobot CEO Colin Angle. Here's a quick, alphabetical list of schools for prospective robotics students to check out.
|California Institute of Technology|
|Carnegie Mellon University|
|Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering|
|Georgia Institute of Technology|
|Massachusetts Institute of Technology|
|Ohio State University|
|Worcester Polytechnic Institute|
Angle also highlighted the Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering, a tiny, all-undergraduate engineering school founded in 2002, as well as Ohio State University, the California Institute of Technology, and the Georgia Institute of Technology, the last of which he said iRobot partners with regularly.
But those who really want to be surrounded by robotics geeks, both in academia and industry, might want to consider a few geographic hot spots. One is, unsurprisingly, the Bay Area. Another is the Boston metro region, where iRobot itself is based. The area is home to MIT and Northeastern University ("We run into them fairly often," Angle said of the latter), and schools such as WPI and Olin are a stone's throw away.
Proximity leads to plenty of mixing and cross-pollination among massive research universities' and smaller colleges' engineering programs, something that can lead to a hybrid experience for undergraduates.
"People generally don't go very far (after school)," Angle observed. "Boston is a bit of a hotbed of robotics. You've got MIT here, which has really had some early success...a great ability to attract and train folks in their area of robotics. Then what happens is that some of those people go and start robot companies. Some of them go out and become professors like (former MIT Artificial Intelligence Lab member) Gill Pratt at Olin College, and you get a bit of a community effect."
But--circling back to the fact that formal robotics programs are still few and far between, not to mention that any development team requires members to have an array of specialized skills--Angle said that when iRobot hires interns or recruits full-time members, the final decision is about the individual's background and potential rather than the name of the institution on his or her diploma.
"We have active programs with MIT, with Stanford, with CMU, with WPI, with Olin. We have an internship program where we get paid interns, and we love to hire our interns that are working out," Angle explained. "(But) we accept applications for internships from anywhere, obviously, and that's a great way of recruiting." iRobot, he said, now has about 500 employees, and despite the rough economic climate's potential effect on sales of its Roomba and Scooba house-cleaning bots, the company is hiring.
"We're not just looking for good roboticists, as I indicated before. For every roboticist that we hire, we're hiring three more traditional domain experts in electrical, mechanical, or software (engineering). So if you graduate with a degree in electrical engineering but are excited by robots, you have as good or better a chance of getting a job at iRobot than if you graduate with a degree in robotics."
Translation: There are a lot of possibilities out there.
"(Robotics) shouldn't be thought of as an industry solely the providence of the guy with the robotics degree, or the closest thing to a robotics degree," Angle said.