MathWorks’ Sebastian Castro, Education Technical Evangelist, says the days when engineers worked in dedicated teams, each performing a specific set of tasks, is evolving into a new model where successful design projects begin by breaking down traditional silos in the spirit of integration.
In this interview, Castro discusses how student competitions help engineers adapt to the changing technology landscape.
Q: What do new engineers need to know about what’s shaping the profession today?
Concepts such as artificial intelligence, cyber-physical systems, and the Internet of Things are just a few examples of trends at the forefront of technology that demand engineers work much more closely across multiple disciplines. If you think about what it takes to design and manufacture an unmanned aerial vehicle or a self-driving car, for example, there has never been more of a need to build teams with computer, electrical, mechanical, software and related engineering skills.
Q: How can we make sure we are adequately preparing the engineers of tomorrow to embrace this new reality?
One answer lies in a collaborative educational approach that brings faculty and industry together to expose students to real-world design challenges. By working outside of the traditional classroom on projects that require some level of engineering cross-pollination, we stand a much better chance of capturing their interest and preparing them for today’s tech market. As it turns out, student competitions are a perfect environment for this.
Q: Can you share an example of what that looks like?
One of many competitions that MathWorks supports is RoboCup, which incorporates research and an understanding of robotic systems. The RoboCup challenge is a long-term mission to build a team of autonomous soccer-playing robots that can beat a squad of humans by 2050. Along the way, RoboCup has spawned sister competitions, such as RoboCupRescue, in which the technology has been adopted by first responders for search-and-rescue missions, and RoboCupIndustrial, which has generated winning entries that were later adapted for manufacturing services and factory logistics.
What’s unique about these competitions is that engineering students are asked to design, prototype, and build autonomous vehicles and robots using standard industry hardware and software tools, including MATLAB and Simulink, in much the same way they would if they were working for a commercial enterprise.
(Next page: Machine learning, professional experience and competition advice)
Q: In addition to working with industry standard tools, what are some of the other ways RoboCup benefits tomorrow’s engineer?
Within RoboCup, students gain knowledge of multiple technologies, including:
- Computer vision and machine learning to autonomously detect, classify, and track objects of interest
- Motion planning and controls, where the focus is on programming robots to stably and reliably move around their environment, while efficiently using and storing energy
- Cyber-physical systems, which may include multi-robot collaboration, communication between robots and humans, and leveraging cloud computing and Internet of Things services for data-driven tasks such as speech recognition
While all of these technologies are individually challenging, the combination of them is exceedingly difficult yet necessary for total robot autonomy.
Q: How does the RoboCup experience mimic what students can expect to encounter in their professional lives?
RoboCup is really no different from what professional engineers experience as they incorporate computer vision, machine learning, and control systems into commercial applications. While RoboCup is an example of the gamification of engineering, the research and results are advancing the state of robotics technology in a very real way. For example, in RoboCupRescue, teams are challenged to design ground robots that can maneuver in post-disaster scenarios over rough terrain. That’s a hands-on solution to an actual problem that wouldn’t be possible without a new approach to cross-functional engineering.
Q: What advice would you give to a student who may be contemplating joining a robotics team or entering a competition?
We see tremendous value for all parties involved. For MathWorks, student competitions lay a path to accelerated learning, which is why we are spending more time and resources training and mentoring teams and supplying student licenses for MATLAB, Simulink and related toolboxes.
For students, competitions help them master a range of engineering concepts and ground them in a tangible outcome. In the end, this kind of practical experience yields a better prepared, more versatile workforce that is catching the attention of prospective employers who are looking for the next generation of “hybrid” engineer.
Sebastian Castro is an Education Technical Evangelist at MathWorks, supporting university-level robotics competitions such as RoboCup. In previous roles, he created training material for MathWorks modeling and simulation solutions, and worked on system-level simulation and design of a conceptual solar-powered UAV. Sebastian has a Master of Science degree in Mechanical Engineering from Cornell University, where he researched high-level control of modular robots.