The Anatomy of a (Cool) Roboticist

I find it fascinating to review the various robotics platforms (humanoid or not) that are out there being worked on these days.  Invariably, each one displays the fingerprints of its maker.  Just as the cardboard and glue of a child’s robot shows us part of its imagination – “Anything is possible with cardboard and glue!” – so do the design decisions of all those adults also building them.

For example, the various engineering disciplines each have their own nuances they bring to the table and they can be reflected in what they’ve built.  Computer/software engineers may be more focused on writing the best code for control and simulation purposes.  Likewise, an electrical engineer might tackle the hardest problems of electronic components and power management. Similarly, the mechanical engineer gets to show of critical knowledge of kinetics and actuation.

Sure that’s oversimplifying things but all these aspects are often at play in lesser or greater measure.  These specialisations can also be a barrier on several levels.  Let’s add a few more “players” to the mix and consider their contributions and how they can help overcome some of those barriers.

Have you considered “the artist”?  Several great projects have been created in the name of art and produced inspiration for many and nudged students toward further education in the field.  Kuratas is one that is described more as a piece of art than as a vehicle (maybe only for liabilities reasons, but still…).

Kuratas is a work of art

Tell me that Kogoro Kurata’s work isn’t inspiring the next generation of builders and makers of large robots in a way that a hundred university projects cannot!  It wasn’t from an academic research project, included no expertly trained engineers and stirred more passion than the DARPA related challenges could ever do.  Truly, his “can-do” attitude and sharp intellectual aptitude are more inspiring than any skill a degree may confer.

Kurata-san describes his own experience and abilities in the above video – here is an excerpt:

 “I never learnt any specialized knowledge, and also my father has never expertly trained me. All what I did was only looking at the surroundings and doing the same things. It’s somewhat like experience is the best teacher.

The most effective style of study is study as necessary.  For example, I study about oil pressure when I need knowledge of oil pressure. And soon I apply it on works and see the results. I put my first priority on what I want to do, not on technique. I just move forward on what I want to do, and make it.” 

Maybe “artist” isn’t the operative word here, how about “generalist”?  But it’s not some sort of watered down generalist that can kinda do a few varied things.  Rather, it’s more like someone who is inspired and capable of learning new things and applying them to the world around them.  (And, heck, it doesn’t hurt if you also can try to turn a profit by selling cool stuff  too!)

You can’t hang your hat on just one aspect of robotics and expect to produce robots that are as functional, robust or even as “cool” as the generalist can.   This describes many hobbyists and professionals who live well outside the walls of engineering – such as toy makers and movie character designers (animitronicists?).

By combining various interests and abilities, folks like Matt Denton is another great example.  Obviously a very capable builder (maybe even an engineer?) at any size, he scaled up his toy/prop/movie character creations into the larger than life Mantis Robot project.

Academic project?  Nope.

Military machine?  Nada.

Inspiring? Check, check and double-check!

So when looking to put together a crack team for building a project, consider not just the typical qualifications listed beside their degrees – but watch for those that can draw together a range of skills and concepts.

(I’d even bet that in many cases a person with even a single entrepreneurial bone can help drive these kinds of innovations further than many who have studied courses upon courses.  Stay tuned on that front…)

Obviously, understanding the mechanical, electronic and software components of robotics is crucial to moving forward.  However, it doesn’t mean you have to be an expert in all or one of them before ever getting started.   In fact, not being locked into one particular discipline is going to help make a more robust product and likely, more inspiring too.

Next time you read about a new platform or project, try looking at it through one of these lenses and see how loudly the created reflects its creator.


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