Boot Camps Build Robotics Talent for a World Impacted by COVID 19

By Dave Zielinski June 1, 2020
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self driving car

​The success of using software boot camps to develop coders is inspiring other industries to adopt similar approaches to close talent gaps in their ranks. One such industry is robotics engineering, a field that experts say is likely to grow in the wake of COVID-19 as automation proves its ability to help organizations avoid the threat of infection through human contact.

The coronavirus crisis has fueled an increase in the use of robots for such tasks as cleaning grocery stores, disinfecting hospitals and delivering takeout food or medicines to those sheltering in place. For example, self-driving vehicles developed by Refraction AI, a company created by two University of Michigan professors, have been in high demand for food and other deliveries since the onset of COVID-19. These autonomous vehicles use bike lanes and drive at about 15 miles per hour.

Like many technical fields, robotics engineering is facing a talent shortage. The industry lacks a robust pipeline of qualified engineers who can quickly get up to speed for jobs such as building self-driving vehicles. To address that challenge, industry and academia have joined forces to find creative ways to close the talent gap. One such partnership resulted in the development of a concept much like a boot camp by technical learning association SAE International in Warrendale, Pa.; self-driving-technology company Argo AI; and Clemson University in South Carolina. 

Their 13-week boot camp will give recent engineering graduates or newly hired mechanical, electrical and computer science engineers an intensive mix of instruction featuring video-based lectures; collaborative, online learning; and in-person, hands-on labs conducted every two to three weeks. The bootcamp cost is $16,000 and there is an application process to ensure basic pre-requisites are met. Rita Bartczak, president of Chestnut Hill Advisors, a marketing strategy and research consultancy near Boston, conducted the original research with industry and academic leaders that led to the creation of the boot camp idea.

Bartczak said the initiative is designed to help new engineering recruits reach full proficiency more quickly and to grow the pipeline of talent moving into robotics and artificial intelligence programming. The self-driving vehicle industry in particular has a need for such talent.

"A car is becoming an electromechanical device controlled by a computer," Bartczak said. "Building autonomous vehicles requires engineers with a broad skill set that includes mechanical, electrical and computer science skills, not just expertise in one of those areas."

That combination of skills typically isn't taught at the undergraduate level at engineering schools, and students often don't receive enough hands-on experience in building autonomous vehicles, Bartczak's research found.

Elizabeth Melville, director of learning for SAE International, said, "We've learned the biggest challenge to the autonomous-vehicle industry isn't the lack of technology but the lack of talent. There simply aren't enough people who are trained and capable of performing advanced engineering for this type of work."

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Focus on Hands-On Experience

SAE's realization that there was a dearth of talent helped spur the boot camp idea, and partnering with Argo AI ensured that the curriculum would reflect the practical skills needed in the industry. Frank Menchaca, chief growth officer for SAE, said industry executives stressed in conversations and research how important increasing the pool of qualified engineers for robotics and automation roles was.

"There are only a limited number of people coming out of the best engineering schools now for these jobs," Menchaca said. "The boot camp will enable a larger number of engineers to develop the kinds of skills needed to participate in the growing robotics industry."

The boot camp will use a blended learning approach, with 65 percent of content delivered online with video-based lectures, self-study and community-of-practice work, Melville said. The remaining 35 percent will be delivered in person at a lab to be held this fall. The status of the COVID-19 outbreak will determine how much of the learning can still be done onsite.

"The idea is to bring participants together every two to three weeks to engage in intensive, hands-on lab work to apply what they've learned to date," Melville said.

The labs will be delivered at Clemson University in Greenville, S.C., and led by Venkat Krovi, a professor of vehicle automation at the university who helped develop the boot camp curriculum. Krovi said the lab work will help engineers develop the unique breadth of skills needed to create self-driving vehicles.

"Robots aren't just one system; they're fundamentally a system of systems," Krovi said. "The engineers skilled at building autonomous vehicles now are still few and far between."

There's no substitute for building an autonomous vehicle in a lab and testing it under real-world conditions, Menchaca said. "Having that vehicle encounter obstacles and the kind of complexities that occur on real streets and then figuring out where your engineering and programming succeeded or failed teaches the ultimate lessons," he said.

Santhosh Arasan, who works as an autonomous-vehicle engineer for an international company, said the strength of such boot camps is in the opportunity for participants to develop real-world skills across different engineering disciplines. Building self-driving vehicles requires mechanical engineers who have coding skills, for example, as well as computer science engineers who understand the fundamentals of vehicle design.

"There's been a gap between what we look for in the industry and what's been produced by the undergraduate universities, which has caused the talent pool to be limited," Arasan said. "When it comes to mastering robotics, you need a systems understanding of how everything works together."

Meeting Future Talent Needs

Experts believe boot camps like this may grow more popular as a result of the impact automated systems have had replacing human contact during the pandemic.

"For the foreseeable future, there are multiple scenarios where organizations are going to want to limit human-to-human interaction," Menchaca said. "Companies will be thinking about how to introduce automation to things like delivering food and medical supplies, using robotics to clean buildings, and even for emergency services, perhaps using autonomous vehicles to transport patients from one place to another."

Krovi said that COVID-19 has raised awareness about the value of automation in society. "In the COVID era, robots have shown their ability to provide safe support and service in many situations that in the past required human contact," he said.

Dave Zielinski is a freelance writer and editor in Minneapolis.

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