Robotics careers set up an exciting new wave of opportunity
Many of today's engineers are carving out fascinating and challenging careers working with robots and robotic systems
"There are no easy answers and every project is unique." – Juan Ramon Davila, Harris Corp
By Angela M. Hutchinson
The robotics field is riding a new wave of opportunity as more careers interface with robots and robotic systems. Technical companies are on the lookout for diverse pros who have experience working with robots. Candidates whose skills make them trainable for careers in robotics are also welcome.
Many employers feel that attracting a diverse world-class workforce is crucial to creating innovative approaches to technical, management and financial challenges. At the Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA, Washington Navy Yard, Washington, DC), for example, Alonzie Scott, director of the enterprise talent management office, declares that "A diverse workforce enhances solution capability, and culture influences how we solve problems." This, he says, implies "finding candidates to do the right jobs at the right place and time to complete the tasks efficiently."
Diversity may be considered a combination of skill sets, innovation and talent, explains Danell A. Diggs, chair of the diversity advisory board for the Army Research Lab (ARL, Adelphi, MD). "When you combine all these factors you produce Nobel Prize winners, topnotch technology and new scientific approaches," she says.
Inspired by parents and teachers, cultural heritage or even favorite movies and books, many of today's engineers are carving out fascinating and challenging careers working with robots and robotic systems.
ME Juan Ramon Davila designs robotic manipulators at Harris Corp
For the past ten years mechanical engineer Juan Ramon Davila has worked with Harris Corporation's Government Communications Systems division. He designs mechanical systems including robotic manipulators for automated work cells.
Harris (Melbourne, FL) is an international communications and IT company that serves government and commercial markets in more than 150 countries. It specializes in secure communications products, systems and services.
"My day changes depending on what phase of the project I'm working on," Davila says with a smile. "Some days I may be using CAD software to design mechanical components, lay out systems or do production drawings. Other days I might program kinematic models to optimize a manipulator's configuration, calculate manipulator joint loads or oversee system integration prior to delivery."
Originally from San Juan, PR, Davila moved to Florida in 1994 to study ME at the Florida Institute of Technology. He completed his BSME in 1998 and went on to a 2004 MSME specializing in robotics.
In grad school Davila mentored high school students building robots for the FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotics competition. This "sport for the mind" competition helps high school kids learn about the interests and rewards of being engineers and scientists.
Davila always loved science fiction. "I had a scale mockup of R2-D2 in my bedroom as a kid, so when I saw the robotics specialization in grad school I grabbed it," he says.
Currently Davila is architecting mechanical design for a robotic manipulator in a reconfigurable work cell to support advanced manufacturing automation operations. The work is constantly challenging and that's what he likes most. "Your life experience and background can influence your point of view and the way you approach a given challenge," Davila says. "Having different and varied points of view on a design team can strengthen a given concept or design, and ultimately provide a better product."
Davila loves working with robots and robotic systems. "There are no easy answers and every project is unique," he says. "You are never doing the same thing twice and that keeps the job interesting."
Christy Hansen is ops lead for NASA's robotic refueling mission
Christy Hansen is robotic refueling mission (RRM) operations lead at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center (Greenbelt, MD). She spent a year and a half with Stinger-Ghaffarian Technologies at Goddard, and before that ten years at Johnson Space Center with United Space Alliance.
Hansen is responsible for planning, developing, training and executing objectives of the RRM, a technology development demonstration payload on the International Space Station (ISS).
"I lead a team that develops robotics, tools and simulated propellant-transfer procedures that will be executed by the robotic arm on the space station," she says. "These activities lay the groundwork for potential servicing missions to damaged communications or weather satellites, or a satellite that's at the end of its life."
As part of her array of responsibilities, Hansen spends hours with her team working on procedures that tell a robot how to use various tools to fix broken satellites. She also supports robotic testing of tools developed at Goddard. She has led her team during mission simulations and supports realtime operations of RRM payload activities on ISS. And she trained astronauts who transferred the RRM payload from the space shuttle to the station.
Hansen grew up in Philadelphia, PA, where her family always encouraged her to "go for it!" "I was always involved in competitive sports and I believe that also prepared me for facing challenges, building confidence and working as both a leader and a team member," she reflects.
In 1997 Hansen completed a BS in comprehensive science with a minor in physics and women's studies from Villanova University (Villanova, PA). Two years later she got an MS in space studies from the University of North Dakota.
"From my earliest years I remember dreaming about spaceflight," she says. "Though I began my career with human spaceflight, the RRM project exposed me to space robotics. It has given me an exciting new outlook on working with more complex, challenging and hard-to-access worksites in space that would be too risky for a human to access."
It's not so easy to put a robot to work, Hansen notes. "You have to tell the robot everything," she says. "If you were sending a human to do the job, you would not have to explain how to do straightforward tasks."
For example, "If you asked a human to remove a bolt, the human would know about how hard to push, what not to touch, etc. In robotics you have to program the robot ahead of time to not exceed X force in Y direction, how hard it should hold onto a tool so as not to break it, what exact direction it needs to go so it does not collide with the structure or itself, and a multitude of other things."
Michelle Merrifield is a controls specialist at Chrysler
Michelle Merrifield has been a controls specialist at Chrysler Group LLC (Auburn Hills, MI) for less than a year, but she's worked with robots and robotic systems for several years. Her work involves testing and validation of the controls environment and other elements that interact with that architecture.
"My responsibilities vary day to day." she notes. "One day I will be generating reports from experiments that have been done, the next day programming robots to test protocols that need to be reviewed."
Merrifield's family is from Macedonia. "I am the first generation here in the U.S.," she says. She believes her background, and work in areas of physics, engineering and business, have allowed her to think outside the box to find solutions to problems that arise.
In 2001 Merrifield graduated from Oakland University (Rochester, MI) with a BS in physics. In 2004 she completed an MBA in finance and management IS. In 2010 she received a second BS, this one in EE. Right now Merrifield is working on testing and validating a new robotics supplier for Chrysler Group's controls architecture. "What I like most about the project is that you need multiple disciplines and skills to test the complete package," she says.
Merrifield likes her work but notes that keeping up with new technology can be a challenge. "There's an ever-changing variety of sensors and other additions that can interface with robotics systems," she says. "Bill Gates' vision was a robot in every home, and with the rapid development in the industry, it might be possible in our lifetime."
Heather Ann Reuter: unmanned craft at General Atomics Aeronautical
Heather Ann Reuter is an engineering manager for the aircraft systems group at General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Inc (GA-ASI, San Diego, CA). She's worked at General Atomics for thirteen years, and is responsible for the MQ-1 Predator series unmanned aircraft system which depends heavily on robotics.
Reuter is involved in systems engineering and customer interface, and acts as integrated product team lead for estimates, changes, systems specs and requirements and engineering proposals. "Each day can be wildly different from the one before," she says.
Most days do, however, start with a review of high-priority items for each customer: upcoming milestones like design reviews, software releases or ground and flight testing activities.
There are usually several meetings with functional engineering groups and program management. Then time is spent interfacing with manufacturing or the flight-test facility. She also travels to customer locations or flight-test facilities as part of the routine of product development and lifecycle activities. She manages a team of sixteen engineers and two avionics techs.
Reuter's grandmother was a private pilot and worked for the Jet Propulsion Lab. "My parents raised my sister and me with a love for space, flight and astronautics," she says. "I originally wanted to be an astronaut but eventually decided I would prefer to work with the aircraft and ground stations instead of flying."
Reuter went to Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University (Prescott, AZ) where she completed a BS in aerospace in 1996 and returned for a 2008 MS. "My masters thesis focused on the design and architecture of ground control stations," she says.
But meantime she earned a commission in the U.S. Army Reserve. She deployed to Iraq in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003-2004, where she commanded more than 130 soldiers. In addition to her MS from Embry-Riddle, Reuter is a 2011 graduate of the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College (Fort McCoy, WI).
Currently she is working with a team of more than a dozen diverse engineers on multiple programs. "Diversity in our industry is very important," she says. "Everyone has something amazing to add to the team. Often it is the individuals' backgrounds, unique education or different perspectives that provide innovative solutions."
Dmitri Nguyen: computer engineer for RDECOM-TARDEC
For the past ten years Dmitri Nguyen has worked as a computer engineer for the U.S. Army Tank and Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center (RDECOM-TARDEC, Warren, MI). His work includes contract management, research projects and testing. He has six years of experience working with robotics.
Right now he's working on a program for large-scale vehicle autonomy through urban environments. "It provides for an unmanned vehicle that obeys rules of the road and avoids obstacles and pedestrians," he says. "I like the idea of working on projects that will help the warfighters and keep them out of harm's way."
Born in Houston, TX to Vietnamese parents, Nguyen says his upbringing did not have a direct impact on his career path. In fact, he credits the movie Transformers for his decision to pursue a career in robotics.
He graduated from the University of Michigan in 2005 with a BS in computer engineering. In 2011 he completed an MBA at Lawrence Technological University (Southfield, MI).
Nguyen is passionate about his work as a computer engineer. The most challenging aspect of his position is predicting its route in the future, he notes. "It's difficult to gauge future warfighter needs in the area of robotics."
Second Lt Eduardo Nieto is a robotics project officer at AFRL
Eduardo Nieto, a second lieutenant in the USAF, is robotics project officer for the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL, Tyndall AFB, FL). He's worked there for two years. "I manage multiple robotic projects focused on supporting Army, Navy and Air Force warfighter requirements," he explains. Current projects include a security checkpoint robotic system, an automated aircraft loader and an airfield damage assessment system.
Born in a small town in central Mexico, Nieto grew up in Longmont, CO. "I enjoyed my math and science classes in high school and decided to pursue engineering at the University of Colorado," he recalls.
He signed up for Air Force ROTC in his sophomore year "with the hope of serving my country as an engineer. I obtained my commission and graduated in 2009." He was the first in his family to go to college.
Robotic systems work in college inspired him to pursue a robotics career. "I wanted to apply my knowledge and interest in robots to my career in the Air Force."
Of course as an Air Force officer his work is assigned based on the needs of the force. "Luckily for me, as a developmental engineer assigned to Air Force research labs I've had the opportunity to develop robotics systems for the warfighter."
Nieto hopes to continue his career with work in robotic systems and other technology for the Air Force at a more strategic level. "As we move into the future, the requirement for robotic technology will increase and the Air Force should benefit from such technology," he says.
Right now Nieto is working on a project to develop flexible technologies to automate handling palletized cargo between loading docks and aircraft. "This project focuses not on making a better cargo loader system, but on automating the repetitive tasks that the loader performs," he says. "I like the opportunity to work on a robotic system that might change the future of logistics operations for the Air Force."
Nieto knows about diversity first hand. "Homogeneous ideas and thinking will not produce high-end products or services," he points out. "Industry needs multiple views and solutions to common problems and issues.
"The different backgrounds that people have add quality to the workplace. Diverse experiences, abilities and ideas are important pieces of the puzzle and without them the puzzle is not complete."
Shad Reese is a lead UGV communications engineer at NAVSEA
As a lead unmanned ground vehicle (UGV) communications engineer with nine years of civilian service at the Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA), Shad Reese's primary work is in wireless communications engineering support for the Navy's explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) unmanned ground robots. He works in Indian Head, MD.
"My work addresses EOD robot communication problems that may keep EOD users from accomplishing their missions in a safe and efficient manner," he says. He's also researching technologies to improve the current state of EOD robot communication systems.
Reese went to the University of South Florida; in 2002 he completed three undergraduate degrees, in EE, CS and computer engineering. He went on to an MS in signal processing and communications from the University of Maryland-College Park.
He's worked as an engineer for nine years, five of them in the robotics field. "Robotics gives me an opportunity to use science and engineering to assist and support my country by solving extremely challenging problems," he says.
His primary responsibility is to support deployed EOD users. "I'm glad that what I do helps improve the safety of our soldiers," says Reese. "It takes a team to solve the complex problems the robotic community faces today."
Kristy Casella: project and product manager at Textron Defense Systems
Kristy Casella has worked at Textron for five years. She's a project manager for Textron Defense Systems, an operating unit of Textron Systems (Wilmington, MA).
She leads and manages multidisciplinary engineering projects. She also heads up Textron Systems' and Textron Defense Systems' involvement with the FIRST Robotics competition. "This includes event and team sponsorship, coordinating team mentoring and Textron volunteer opportunities," she says.
She enjoys many facets of her involvement with FIRST. She likes to see the students' excitement; she enjoys participating in design reviews and hearing the students explain their studies and conclusions. "They impress me year after year," she says.
Casella also enjoys the energy of the FIRST events. "It is quite a close community, centered on making science and engineering fun. It is exciting and rewarding to be a part of such a community," she says.
Monitoring ongoing projects and programs and reporting on progress are some of Casella's daily tasks. She interfaces with engineers, contract managers and the finance, business line management and accounting departments.
"I am starting to work on bigger programs and projects that involve multiple disciplines," she says. "I'm moving from the world of R&D toward the world of product management. This provides great opportunity to learn."
Moving forward, Casella would like to continue on her current path, but also branch out into new areas of the business to try new things. "I hope to get more involved in FIRST as well, perhaps with event planning or getting more hands on with teams," she says. "I also hope to teach the teams some project management skills to help them plan and monitor their build season."
Casella is originally from Massachusetts. She started in education but switched to Middlesex Community College for her 2000 associates degree in engineering. Later she got a BSEE from the University of Massachusetts, an MS in EE and computer engineering from Worcester Polytechnic Institute, and an MS in engineering management and a masters certificate in engineering leadership from Northeastern University (Boston, MA).
She never intentionally pursued robotics. "It was something I simply got the opportunity to work in as the charter of my group at Textron Defense Systems evolved over time," she says.
She has spent several years managing robotics and autonomy projects, and right now she's working primarily on unattended sensor systems projects. "Although they are not robotic systems in a traditional sense, they are unattended," she says.
A challenging aspect of her job is keeping up with the engineers: learning the technology of each discipline and the interactions between disciplines and subsystems. "I leave a lot of the details to the engineers who work the programs, but making strategic decisions at a high level is definitely a challenge considering how technology and the economy are changing," she says.
Ainsmar Brown is an aerospace research engineer for the ARL
For the past two-plus years Ainsmar Brown has worked as an aerospace research engineer for the Army Research Laboratory (ARL, Adelphi, MD). He works in R&D on robotic systems, including formulation of system dynamics, and simulation, design and integration of autonomous robotic systems.
"One of my main jobs is determining how to formulate and solve new problems in robotics," he says. "This may include extensive literature reviews to determine the current state of the art and how to contribute to it." Brown believes the area of robotics is so large now that no one group can possibly have all the answers.
"There's also a lot of simulation work and hardware programming involved, so coding becomes a very important skill on a daily basis. I have to troubleshoot code and hardware for robotics systems as well."
Born to West Indian parents, Brown grew up in New Jersey as a first-generation U.S. citizen. "My social environment was heavily influenced by West Indian, Catholic, African American, Jewish, Hispanic, Hindu, Italian, Islamic and Korean cultures," Brown says. "I would say my day-to-day experiences were ethnically oriented in general, right down to people's cars. It seemed you could not go anywhere without seeing some kind of flag, Puerto Rican, German, Israeli, Nigerian or something else, affixed somewhere on a car. Ethnic pride was very apparent in my neighborhood."
In 2007 Brown graduated from the Georgia Institute of Technology (Atlanta, GA) with a BS in aerospace engineering. In 2011 he completed an MS in aerospace engineering with a focus on flight mechanics and controls.
Brown's interest in fighter aircraft design triggered his interest in aerospace engineering. "With changes in the market, that attention moved to unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), and due to the overlap with UAV technology and robotics I eventually found myself working in this government robotics research lab," he says.
Dr Joseph Djugash is an assistant project manager at TEMA
At Toyota Motor Engineering & Manufacturing North America (TEMA, Erlanger, KY) Joseph Djugash, PhD is an assistant project manager. He's in his first year with the company, but has been researching state-of-the-art robotics since 2004.
Today he's leading a collaboration with TEMA partners in universities and other research labs, all working to develop a new robot project led by TEMA.
"My responsibilities lie in ensuring the timeliness and success of the project, along with implementing components related to robot vision, intelligence and autonomy," he says.
He spends much of his time coding and debugging new modules for the projects. Another key responsibility is researching solutions to difficult problems and developing new methods and algorithms for the work. For example, he's currently looking into apps related to healthcare and personal-care robots. "Robotics as a field is still very new so we put a lot of effort into keeping up to date with technologies and techniques other researchers are developing across the globe," he says. "I also travel to conferences, expos and meetings with collaboration and research partners."
Djugash was born in India and grew up in India, Singapore, Canada and the U.S. "My dad has a PhD in civil and structural engineering and my mom is a college math professor. Under their influence I was taught at a very young age to learn new things and solve problems," he says.
In fact, he notes with a smile, "Many of the tasks I have as part of my current job seem like extensions of what I was taught to do as a child."
At the age of nineteen Djugash got his BS in computer engineering from the University of Minnesota (Minneapolis, MN). He went on to Carnegie Mellon University (Pittsburgh, PA) for a 2007 MS and 2010 PhD in robotics.
Djugash truly values diversity. "It brings together ideas and opinions from people with a wide range of backgrounds and experiences. We find that diversity is key when working to invent something new, whether it's a new robot, a new algorithm or a new house."
DIVERSITY-MINDED COMPANIES & ORGANIZATIONS WORKING IN ROBOTICS
See websites for latest openings.
|Company/organization and location
|Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL)
(Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, OH)
|Develops warfighting technologies for air, space and cyberspace forces
|Army Research, Development & Engineering
Command (RDECOM) (Aberdeen Proving Ground, MD) www.rdecom.army.mil
||Creates, integrates and delivers technology-
enabled solutions to U.S. soldiers
|Army Research Laboratory (Adelphi, MD)
|Scientific research, technology development
|Chrysler Group LLC (Auburn Hills, MI)
|General Atomics Aeronautical Systems
(Poway, CA) www.ga-asi.com
|Unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) and
advanced high-res surveillance systems
|Harris Corporation (Melbourne, FL)
|Digital microwave radios, wireless local loop
telephony systems, broadband wireless access products, secure communications systems
|National Aeronautic & Space Administration (NASA) (Greenbelt, MD) www.nasa.gov
||U.S. civilian space program and aerospace
|Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA)
(Washington, DC) www.navsea.navy.mil
|Engineers, builds, buys and maintains Navy ships and combat systems
|Textron Defense Systems (operating unit of Textron Systems, Wilmington, MA)
||Smart weapons; intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance systems; protection systems; directed energy weapons
|Toyota North America (Erlanger, KY)
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