Careers in Robotics: Software Engineer
you'll never use high school math? Think again...
Jones and Matt Zucker may seem like regular guys just out of college--but
they have one of the coolest jobs around! They are both software
engineers for Bluefin
Robotics, a company that makes underwater robots, otherwise
known as autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs). Bluefin's AUVs are
small, unmanned submarines that use on-board artificial intelligence
to complete survey tasks with little or no human supervision.
Matt and Gil do the same job now, the difference in how they got
there shows there really is no single path to robotics.
was a classic underachiever in high school," says Matt. "I
got into college by the skin of my teeth. Once I got into college,
though, I realized I wanted to focus on my interests. Studying something
I liked really made it all worthwhile." In college at Vassar,
Matt took his
interests in biology and computers even further. He took classes
in psychology, philosophy, anthropology, human brain and behavior,
and artificial intelligence to work his way to a degree in cognitive
science. His main interest? Helping robots and computers learn complex
the other hand, was a good student in high school, but didn't start
out in robotics either--he was more interested in political science.
At Swarthmore College, he was inspired by computer science. "I
wanted to focus on artificial intelligence. I took an artificial
intelligence class where we started playing with Lego robots, using
Handyboards and sensors." Gil really got interested in robotics
through AAAI robotics competitions (imagine creating a robot that
can serve hors d'oeuvres!), and when he graduated with a degree
in computer science, a lot of his experience was with robots.
line, both Gil and Matt agree, is that you don't have to go to an
engineering school. Liberal arts universities and colleges will
also give you the skills you need to do robotics. If you're interested
in a lot of things--physics, math, science, engineering, communications,
and others--you'll do well.
Gill and Matt did summer internships during college that provided
them with work experience and an idea of how to get a job in robotics.
During one summer, Gil worked
for the Naval Research Laboratory doing software artificial intelligence
research and then, after graduating, spent the summer preparing
for another AAAI competition. When one of his friends got a job
at Bluefin, Gil learned about the company and then applied to be
a software engineer. Matt got an internship at Bluefin during the
summer between his junior and senior years and was then offered
a job following graduation. What's their best advice for getting
internships and jobs? Perseverance! "Just find someone who
works in robotics and ask them for advice," says Matt. Gil
adds, "Sometimes it's difficult to get in, but keep trying.
Think about doing an internship for free. Often internships are
the first step through the door."
Programming, and... Cruising(?)
of the great things about this job is the variety. Sometimes they
spend all day reading up on robotics research, sometimes they spend
all day in front of a computer... and sometimes they spend all day
hanging out on a boat testing the robot in the ocean! "You're
making something that has a purpose, something that's part of a
bigger project," says Gil. "You get to see if what you
did worked. Of course, that means you're entirely responsible."
Another perk, according to Matt, is that "you usually get to
learn something big and new every few weeks." One warning:
Pay attention in high school math classes. "You'll use trigonometry
A lot of
the work Bluefin does is in partnership with other places such as
the Woods Hole Oceanographic
Institution and the Monterey
Bay Aquarium Research Institute. The important thing is to know
what's going on in your field or area of work--talk to people and
read the research. Don't reinvent the wheel.
Matt and Gil plan on going back to school sometime to do graduate
work. Matt wants to study computer science, focusing on computer
graphics and computer-human interfaces. Eventually, he wants to
be a professor. Gil plans to go back to school specifically in robotics.
He finds underwater robotics exciting because it requires autonomy,
but there are a lot of other cool areas of robotics he'd like to
for both of them is that robotics is a quickly changing and very
open field. As they point out, "You can do new stuff in any
of the related areas and that's exciting!"