Yesterday I received an email from a software student asking about robotics and how to study this exciting field.

Answer: Robotics is the branch of technology that deals with the design, construction, operation, and manufacture of robots. There are many fields associated with robotics such as Mechanical Engineering, Electrical Engineering, Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning, and Computer Science.

In the past, robots are mostly toys but today, robots play a very important things in many areas. Robots play a important role in manufacturing, from construction to creating furniture, from building cars to welding airplanes parts etc. The current effort is researching how robots can be more productive, how they can better aid in medical treatment or creating robots that can drive over rugged terrain, dig deep into the soil to find mineral samples, or working in highly contaminated areas that is not suitable for human being.

There are many areas in robotics: One area is focusing on artificial intelligence, making robots more intelligent so they can process information faster and better. Another area is on making them more mobile so they can operate quicker and more flexible. There are robots that can work together and organize tasks so they can operate a series of activities to achieve an objective. Another area is focusing on their human interaction and making them learn from mistakes (Machine learning) to conduct sophisticated task without making error. The most well known is an IBM computer named Watson that have learned to defeat people in a game called “Jeopardy” where they all have to answer random questions. Another area is on the development of bio-medical robotics that can resemble a human being, and of course much more.

Carnegie Mellon University is one of the top schools in robotics. Many robots at CMU are modeled after animals. The snake robots can travel in small area like a snake to go into difficult places such as a oil pipeline to take pictures, fix problems. The water strider robot is modeled after a water strider bug or a big mosquito that walks on water. In order to determine the physics of the creature, CMU scientists used micro-actuators to simulate the bug’s movements. This robot can go into difficult places on water with power and efficiency. The self-driven car is another application of robotics in cars where a unmanned car can travel from Los Angeles to Las Vegas, from New York to San Francisco all by itself. The software that run on IBM’s Watson is developed at CMU. This Machine Learning “robots” already learned all the books in several libraries so it can answer many random questions from people in seconds. You can ask “Watson” almost anything and it will give you the correct answer in fraction of a second.

Many students like to work on “futuristic robots” so few years ago, some of them created robots that can build copies of itself. Basically, these robots are made of some simple modular cubes that have electro-magnetic on them, which allows them to attach to and detach from one another. Since these robot learn how to bend, reconfigure and then manipulate these cubes to create another copies. It is possible in the near future, they can work on more sophisticated things that could repair themselves and replace defective modules. I think these students watch too many “Transformers movies”.

Some students like to study robots that can be transformed into a “super-human” so they design a robots prototype made up of human body parts such as arm and legs that can be connected to the user’s feet and arms. These prototypes are equipped with a hydraulic power units that allow the robots to carry large and heavy loads of things. (If you see the movie “Avatar” you know what it look like).

Computer Science or Software Engineering students who want to consider going to graduate school may want to look into robotics as a future study field. It is a relatively new field, it is fun, it allows students to let their imagination soaring high to work on many robots applications that today people have not even think that it is possible. For more information you may look into the following link:


  • Blogs of Prof. John Vu, Carnegie Mellon University
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