What’s inspiring a new generation of robotics engineers?

Kat Styles working on the ExoMars rover at Airbus

What’s inspiring a new generation of robotics engineers?

Will this century go down in history as the age of the robots? They’re certainly going to have a major impact on how we live and work. Since robotics engineers will help shape that future, it’s important that they’re drawn from all sections of society. We talked to two Robotics PhD students to find out more.

Selim Tudgey is studying for a PhD in Robotics and Autonomous Systems; Kat Styles is a PhD student on the FARSCOPE programme, working within the Bristol Robotics Laboratory a joint venture between UWE and the University of Bristol.

How did you come to study engineering and robotics?

Kat: I took an undergraduate master’s in astronomy, space science and astrophysics. In my final year, I was investigating the robustness of spacecraft shielding against hyper-velocity impacts in orbit. That inspired me to switch from science to engineering. To pursue my interest in all things space, I joined Airbus as a spacecraft thermal engineer on the thermal team for the ExoMars rover. I was analysing the rover’s ability to survive the harsh temperatures on Mars. I enjoyed the project so much, I chose to continue learning about and working with robotic technology, hence choosing this PhD.

Selim as an undergraduate next to a light aircraft
Selim as an undergraduate

Selim: Even as a child, my favourite toy was my bicycle. It was big and heavy for tiny me, but I loved the freedom it gave me. It might have been an unconscious trigger for my interest in engineering. My favourite subjects at school were mathematics and physics – I enjoyed solving problems. Physics gave me an understanding of the science behind things like car engines and electricity. Mathematics and further mathematics showed me just how complex mathematics could get. This opened up a whole new world of specialisation, like decision maths and mechanics which we apply to real-life scenarios.  After school, I took aerospace engineering at UWE. I chose the course because I was fascinated with aircraft and spacecraft. I wanted to understand how they worked and fix them. This PhD was the logical next step.

This year’s theme for International Women in Engineering Day is ‘shape the world’. How do you think engineers will do that in the next decade?

Selim: I think we’ll see engineering become a much bigger part of society. It’ll move into areas where it has been quite limited before. For example, health and social care, where interactive devices are already being created to make living easier.

Kat: Robotic autonomy and dexterity has huge potential. At the moment, robots are confined to controlled environments because they struggle with unexpected changes. To enter the real world and interact with humans, they’ll need to become safer – softer – and able to adapt and respond to different conditions. At the Bristol Robotics Laboratory and worldwide, researchers are tackling this problem from all angles, looking at robot safety and human interaction, robot dexterity, soft robotics, computer vision, artificial intelligence and more.

What does your research involve?

Kat: At the moment, I’m adding force sensing to a gripper for a robot operating in confinement. This should allow the human controller to ‘feel’ the force the robot is experiencing and assist them in controlling its movements precisely. Having a robot that can handle samples which need to be kept contained and not exposed to the atmosphere or to human contact has various applications. In medicine, it can be used in quarantine situations. In the nuclear industry, it can deal with radioactive material. In the space industry, it can help analyse samples collected from outer space that need to be isolated to prevent contamination.

Selim: I am in the first year of my PhD in Robotics and Autonomous Systems. The first year is an MRES with a selection of optional and mandatory modules. I am currently studying robotics systems, bio-inspired artificial intelligence, human-robot interaction, etc. My dissertation is focused on using machine vision and deep learning techniques to create a system for eye tracking, which can be used in the diagnosis of neurodegenerative diseases and in the design of vision systems for robots.

Why should more women consider studying engineering? What’s your advice to those who are?

Selim Tudgey
Selim Tudgey

Selim: It really helps to know there are other women in the same position as you. You are not alone and you can actually do anything you set your mind to. Engineering covers so many areas, it’s not difficult to find one you’re passionate about. If you have that passion, you won’t lose focus when things get tough… and they will. You will be even more determined to understand what you are learning. Being passionate has been what has driven me forward. I struggle to grasp concepts sometimes, but it’s why I go to extra lengths to work things out.

Kat: If you find you don’t know or understand something and it seems like you should, like in a lecture or group-project meeting, ask someone or research it, because you’ll probably need that information later. Try not to be self-conscious about asking your lecturer to explain something or to check your work with them before submitting an assignment, it’s their job to give you information and help you achieve the highest grade.

More top tips for engineering students

Work experience

Work experience is really important both for your CV and for personal growth, even if it’s not in the field you want to pursue. Internships and placements are difficult to come by, so be persistent. Don’t rely on advertised positions alone, contact companies directly as well. If you email one company per day for the whole year, you should have a choice of internships to take in the summer holidays. Make use of your college careers service to check application cover letters and CVs.

Dissertations/research projects

You’ll know years in advance that this is coming up, so get started early, even before your course officially kicks off the work. If you’re in your penultimate year, there’s nothing to stop you approaching potential supervisors to ask about final year projects or research. This work will probably be a large percentage of your overall degree grade and will also likely be what you put on your CV and talk about in job interviews. Make sure you get the best research topic for you and the career you want to pursue.