How do I become a robotics designer?

We speak to some of the South West's most innovative robot creators for expert advice
12th May 2015

There’s a huge call for robotics in our brave new world; from medical services and the military, to manufacturing and gaming, it’s boom time for all things automated. In fact, the Bristol Robotics Laboratory (BRL) will soon be doubling its postgraduate places, as more and more people pursue a career in this fast-changing field.

So, if robotics is your thing, where should you begin?

Getting started

First off, get a good basic knowledge of electronics. This might not be the most fun part of robotics, but it’s essential. Indeed, Silas Adekunle, founder of Bristol-based Reach Robotics, a company working on the world’s first gaming robots, says: “When I was young, the very first project I attempted was attaching a battery to two separate motors; I’d go crazy, just sitting there for hours watching them spin round.

“It was great fun, and having that basic knowledge is key. After that, you can let your imagination run wild.”

1410795322108

Silas Adekunle: Robots within reach

Try searching ‘electronics for beginners‘ on any online bookstore, and treat yourself to a few magazine subscriptions; perhaps Robot Magazine and/or Servo. These will keep you up-to-date with the latest technologies and industry players. Then, you can get your hands dirty with a kit, allowing you to build a robot from scratch with little or no experience.

“A lot of the robots I make look as if they’re from sci-fi movies, so don’t be afraid to think big”

 

Once you’ve got a good grounding, you’ll be well placed to consider the next step. Silas adds: “A lot of the robots I make look as if they’re from sci-fi movies, so don’t be afraid to think big. However, when you’re starting out, perhaps it’s worth approaching a startup looking for trainees to help you get a footing in the industry.”

Make it happen

Joel Gibbard, founder of Open Bionics, who provide amputees with low-cost robotic hands and who recently won a £125,000 prize from Intel, believes in taking a very pragmatic approach.

“Whatever your passion is, just get out and do it”

 

He says: “A lot of people already know what their passion is, but don’t pursue it. Whatever your passion is, just get out and do it.

IMG_1780

Joel Gibbard: Handy advice

“A good starting point would be to take a project that already exists, and copy it. See what you learn by taking somebody else’s design and recreating it for yourself. It’ll spark off so many ideas, and you may even see things that can be improved. This will help form your own projects.”

Coding and education

Programming knowledge is also crucial, so if you’re a little rusty, be sure to brush up on the most modern of modern languages; Basic, Java, Python and C/C++.

“You can teach yourself programming, and don’t necessarily have to study it”

 

Nick Pestell of PiJuice, a robotics education platform whose Kickstarter campaign was overfunded to the tune of £100K , says: “You can teach yourself programming, and don’t necessarily have to study it at school or uni. You should create an online profile with links to your projects, allowing employers to see what you’re capable of. Show gumption and you’ll get noticed.”

Screen Shot 2015-05-01 at 02.00.09

Nick Pestell: Eyes on the pi

Once you’ve got a working knowledge of programming and wish to pursue robotics, studying at the BRL is a very popular move in the South West. They offer three or four-year BSc (Hons) undergraduate courses, as well as two masters programmes; MSc in Robotics and MSc by Research – Robotics.

The latter is considered an ideal preparatory course for those wishing to go on to study a PhD, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves! Watch this short video for more info on the BRL:

Networking and funding

The aptly-named West of England Robotics Network is an open access community of roboticists, sponsored by the West of England Local Enterprise Partnership. They aim to bring together ‘everyone interested in researching, developing or deploying Robotics and Autonomous Systems (RAS) technologies, products and services’ and welcome individuals from all backgrounds and disciplines. Contacting them would be a great start if you’re serious about meeting like-minded people who could be well placed to help you on your journey.

If you have a consumer idea that you’re confident can generate a buzz, you could go down the crowd-funding route. Try offering potential backers interesting rewards to draw them in, and make sure you read TechSPARK’s tips on how to make your crowd-funding project stand out.

If you’re a student, you can apply for grants through your university. You’ll have to write a proposal document that outlines exactly what you want to build, why and what benefit it could potentially hold for society. Most grants have specific purposes so take a look at what’s available when you’re developing your idea.

Inspired? Get involved

Whatever your inspiration, whether influenced by fun sci-fi thoughts or serious ambitions to change the world, robotics is a growing industry with opportunities aplenty. There’s never been a better time to get involved, so follow the sage advice above and let us know how you get on.

Thanks to Silas, Nick and Joel for taking time out to speak with us. You can follow @ReachRobotics, @PiJuice and @OpenBionics on Twitter. Don’t forget to follow us while you’re there!

[Image credit: flickr.com/photos/[email protected]/5925588792 under a creative commons licence.]