Robotics Industry Creating Its “Silicon Valley” in Pasadena
Five leaders of Pasadena’s robotics community took part in a roundtable discussion as part of the Route 66 Innovation Series. Moderator Lawren Markley focused the conversation on three main questions: Why are so many robotics companies in Pasadena? What trends are accelerating the growth of the industry? And what skills and backgrounds should people develop if they want to work in robotics?
The first question was the easiest: Pasadena’s robotics industry (1) is an outgrowth of its space and aerospace industries, and those can trace their roots to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL).
Three of the five panelists have a direct connection to JPL.
Brian Monacelli is an optical engineer at JPL. He worked on the Perseverance rover’s SHERLOC: the Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman & Luminescence for Organics & Chemicals instrument. Monacelli noted that nearly all robots need a vision detection system in order to carry out whatever application they were designed for. Particularly for space, vision detection is obviously key for exploration and research, but the optical systems also provide the primary data to the public: the raw images from the surface.
Dr. Issa Nesnas works in robotics mobility, specifically extreme terrain access, at JPL. Few robots are stationary. Even some of the most common and familiar robots – such as iRobot’s Roomba (also from Pasadena, but not part of the panel) – need to navigate their way around static and dynamic obstacles, relying on their optical systems.
The third JPL connection (2) was Motiv’s CEO and co-founder Chris Thayer. Thayer explained Pasadena’s rise to robotics prominence as a reflection of private industry’s ability to fuse two industries that were developing at such different paces as to be almost diverging.
“Spaceflight was really limiting for the field of robotics. Robotics were very resource intensive, and the available hardware and software that could run on that hardware 10-20 years ago was very limiting of what could be done. Now, we’re porting a lot of ground robotics capabilities into spaceflight systems (3). That’s really exciting for us and transformational of what we can expect in space over the next couple decades.” [14:00]
Rounding out the panel were two technologists developing terrestrial robots. Stefan Scherer is the CTO of Embodied, Inc., the maker of “Moxie,” a companion robot (4) designed to help children with their emotional and social development.
Ryan Sinnet is the CTO and co-founder of Miso Robotics. Miso developed “Flippy,” the burger-flipping robot. Sinnet talked about how much the fields of computer vision and mobility had to advance before a robot could do such a “simple” task as flipping burgers (5). It’s the environment, not the job, Sinnet explained. “Factories are consistent, but in a kitchen, anything goes.”
Sinnet also stressed the market forces behind the emergence of the robotics industry. They need to be worth the cost, whether that’s weighed against a human workforce or, as Motiv’s Thayer pointed out, the cost of designing, building and sending a robot into space.
“Whether it’s commercial or government, the cost lowering is a big deal.” Thayer pointed to Motiv’s design emphasis on modularity as a way not just of keeping costs down, but of expanding the technical and human ecosystems of the robotics industry.
“We do things like modularity at all levels: arms are modular, vision systems are modular, so we can adapt and plug and play. We also promote an open architecture for software.
“Most software architectures previously have been closed systems, and it’s hard to bring new talent into those systems. Even as we go into space, it’s about modularity and open architecture.” [23:30]
The changing economics of robotics is increasing the demand for new talent in the industry. Fortunately, the industry is very attractive to a wide range of people.
Many of them want to know what sort of education or professional background they need to have to pursue a career in robotics. Some may have the desire but are deterred by a perceived lack of qualifications. The panelists were unanimous that there is no single “qualification set” to work in robotics. Some skills and backgrounds are more directly applicable than others, but there’s a place for nearly any resume.
Dr. Nesnas emphasized how robotics is a discipline of many disciplines: “Computing, motion control, artificial intelligence, machine learning – all must come together to make a robot capable of operating. Robotics curricula and degrees coming on line have a good balance of going deep and achieving breadth, and having those two together gives a good foundation.”
Thayer said prospective students or applicants need “to have a real intellectual curiosity about one of those disciplines. Maybe mechanical, software or electrical. But they have to want to explore the whole trade space. It’s not just the knowledge base. We need very skilled technicians to work on the hardware, plus the disciplines coming out of college. That’s a key portion people often overlook.”
“I prefer people who want to touch the hardware, get involved, get their hands dirty. Then experiment, try, fail, relearn.” [27:20]
One specific area that many people may not associate with the robotics industry – particularly space robotics – is user interface. Companies like Motiv need UI/UX professionals because most of Motiv’s robots are semi-autonomous or fully controlled (6). They work with humans, not in place of them. For now, that involves managing the time delays in communicating between Earth and Mars. In the future, that will involve human-robot interactions on Mars itself.
“If you’re working at temperatures down around -180 C, astronauts will be suited up. They won’t have dexterous fingers. How do you have an interface? You can’t have an iPhone or your screen – it doesn’t work at that temperature. So how do you do that? You have to be creative to come up with ways to interface with humans in extreme environments.” (7) [52:20]
Watch the whole thing on YouTube, and be sure to reach out to Motiv or any of our friends in Pasadena’s robotics industry if you think Robot City, USA, is the right place for you.