Women in Engineering: Robotics Engineering

Engineering

To celebrate National Women in Engineering Day on June 23rd we’re exploring some of the niches within engineering, as well as the skilled women working within them.

In the third of our blog posts supporting the #RaisingProfiles sub-theme, we’re investigating the current status of women in robotics engineering and taking a look at what the future could hold for them in this industry.

What is robotics engineering?

Robotics engineers are responsible for designing and creating robots and robotic systems to perform duties that humans can’t, or would prefer not to, complete. The majority of these robots are made with the aim of making day-to-day jobs easier, safer and more efficient.

Much of an engineer’s time will be spent drawing up plans to build the robot, as well as developing the processes needed to run it. Some engineers will even be responsible for designing the machines needed to assemble the robots.

The current status of women in robotics engineering

Many hold strong opinions on whether or not the use of robots is a good or bad thing for society – namely due to the implications it could have on jobs – but one thing is clear: the demand for robotics engineers is paramount, and increasing.

As interest in robots grows, an opportunity to shape the way these robots function and interact with humans grows too. Not only do bots need to be able to move on their own, they need to know how to react in a normal social situation.

It’s this psychological behaviour that highlights the need for more women in the field. Steffi Paepcke, co-founder at Open Source Robotics Foundation, agrees – she thinks that robots built exclusively by either men or women will exclude important characteristics necessary for it to successfully interact with both genders. The issue, as with all types of engineering roles, is that the gender split is hugely unbalanced.

Tom Green, the editor of Robotics Business Review, believes women could be deterred from roles in robotics as the machines look too masculine. This causes a bit of a dilemma when considering more women are needed in the field to encourage more feminine robots to be built.

Melonee Wise, CEO of Fetch Robotics, has worked in the industry for 15 years and says she has trouble encouraging women to apply for engineering roles, estimating that just 5% of her applicants are women. She thinks they aren’t as keen to get involved because current attempts to encourage them into the industry are flawed, arguing that instead of telling women they need to be ‘smart’ to work in engineering, they should be told to be ‘creative’.

Regardless of the reasons for women failing to be tempted, the need for them is evident. This, at least, suggests positive potential for uplift in future, particularly as humanoid robotics grows in popularity.

Women in robotics engineering

Melonee Wise

One of the most respected roboticists in the industry, Melonee Wise is CEO of Fetch Robotics, the company behind robots Fetch and Freight.

This robotic duo is designed to enable e-commerce businesses to automate their warehouses. Fetchcore is the software that allows users to customise workflows and programme routes, whilst Freight follows a worker through the warehouse as they remove items from the shelf, before dispatching parts to another team member on the assembly line.

Wise has a rich personal history in designing, building and programming robotics, from personal robots to an autonomous boat.

Yuki Nakagawa

Yuki Nakagawa is CEO of Tokyo-based RT Corporation and a renowned specialist in robotics.

She has developed numerous intelligent robots, including bots for the RoboCup football league, as well as the humanoid robot RIC (Robot Inside Character) 90, an entertainment robot that can be dressed up in various animal suits, similar to a mascot.

Nakagawa has served as lead curator at the National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation and as an assistant professor at the Interdisciplinary Graduate School of Science and Engineering at the Tokyo Institute of Technology.

Casey Schulz

Casey Schulz is co-founder of technology company, Preemadonna. Together with fellow co-founder and CEO, Pree Walia, she has designed a nail art printing robot enabling users to instantly decorate their nails using their smartphone.

Casey has a diverse background in systems engineering, building satellites, Cartesian robots and small motion control systems. She’s worked at NASA Ames and Accel Biotech and is passionate about teaching girls about tech and robotics.

The future for women in robotics

With the use of humanoid robots increasing, particularly within roles traditionally associated with women, the requirement for females to work in the field is rising.

As mentioned, Steffi Paepcke believes that in order to create robots that successfully interact in a world with men and women, female input is essential for shaping their behaviour. This call for more women to work in robotics engineering can only be positive; the biggest challenge is making the industry appealing and accessible to them.

Seemingly, robotics has reached a form of stalemate. The more women that get involved, the more female role models – both human and robotic – will appear. But, if more feminine robots are needed to attract women to the job, which has to come first?