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Heroes in Engineering: A Spotlight on Robotics

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Expert Spotlight: William Santana Li, Knightscope Security Robots

Once upon a time, Americans could go to the airport, attend concerts and send their kids to school without fear. We now live in a world where mass shootings happen almost every day. The most recent mass shooting in Thousand Oaks, California was the 307th mass shooting in 311 days.

More kids than ever walk through metal detectors before going to class. Airport security measures have never been steeper. Major public events are heavily monitored, and houses of worship are no longer sanctuaries of peace. Public security has become a charged political talking point, but meaningful solutions are scarce.

Robotics experts like William Santana Li hope to change that. Li is chairman and CEO of the security robot development firm Knightscope.

“I don't believe the founders of our country ever expected us to build a society where going to work, going to school, going to a movie theater, or the mall literally came with a risk of being shot or killed,” said Li. “Our long-term, slightly ambitious mission is to make the United States of America the safest country in the world, changing everything for everyone.”

Knightscope produces fully autonomous security robots that combine self-driving technology, robotics, and artificial intelligence to predict and prevent crime. The company already has active contracts in 15 states across the country. Knightscope robots can be found at “major corporations, hospitals, airports, stadiums, logistics facilities, malls—basically anywhere outdoors or indoors you might find a private security guard.”

If the idea of security robots incites visions of a full-blown AI take-over, fret not. Knightscope’s bots are designed to support—not replace—human security professionals by expanding their surveillance reach and freeing them up for more detailed work. Li notes that the majority of Knightscope’s clients want “new unprecedented tools” that make existing security teams “much more capable of securing the facilities you visit and work.”

“Overall the idea is that these machines will eventually be able to ‘see, feel, hear and smell' much better than a human—providing the security guard new, 'superhuman capabilities' for them to do their jobs much more effectively,” says Li. “The machines are great at the monotonous, computationally intensive work and the humans are great at decision-making, human engagement, and more, say, 'strategic' work.”

William Santana Li

Chairman and CEO, Knightscope

William Santana Li is chairman and CEO of California-based robotics security company Knightscope, which serves U.S. airports, corporations, hospitals, stadiums, and other security-sensitive sites. Li leverages his electrical engineering training, entrepreneurial prowess and passion for robotics to create novel security and law enforcement technologies. Before founding Knightscope, he was Chairman and CEO of the Carbon Motors Corporation, developer of the world’s first purpose-built law enforcement vehicles. Li also founded and headed Built-to-Order, Model E Corporation, and Greenleaf Health. He holds a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering from Carnegie Mellon University and a master's of business administration (MBA) from the University of Detroit Mercy.

Six World-Saving Robots That Already Exist

According to financial guru and education and conservation advocate David Kinnear, robots have the potential to save the world in ways humans could not have imagined. “The invention of robotic technology means that humans can finally make roadways into the deepest oceans and thickest forests—corners of the world previously inaccessible to mere mortals,” writes Kinnear.

Here are some of the ways robots are changing the way we live and view the world.

The Digger D-3 military robot. The Digger D-3 is a remote-controlled military robot that finds and safely detonates landmines, sparing military and civilian lives. Mic reports that according to UNICEF, there are still some 110 million explosive mines from past wars buried throughout the world.

The Seabin garbage collection robot. Seabin is an aquatic robot that collects garbage from the ocean, rivers, and other bodies of water to help vulnerable animal populations and the 2.1 billion people worldwide who do not have access to clean water. Seabin catches an estimated half-ton of garbage each year at an energy cost of just $1 per day.

Drone pollinators. Experts estimate that the U.S. lost about 44 percent of all honeybee colonies—which are essential for agricultural pollination—in 2017 alone. Species like the Hawaiian yellow-faced and rusty patch bees are bordering on extinction. NPR reports that researchers at Japan’s National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology have created an insect-sized robotic drone it believes can offset some of that loss through artificial pollination.

The Da Vinci Surgical System. The Da Vinci surgical robot attaches surgical tools to tiny robotic arms capable of independently performing small-scale surgeries, potentially reducing the healthcare gap plaguing many rural and underserved communities. The surgical robot could also help skilled surgeons perform difficult procedures by proxy from virtually anywhere in the world.

The Quince nuclear clean-up robot. Robots can go places unsafe for humans such as irradiated environments in nuclear facilities. Quince—a remote-controlled robot equipped with various tools and a radiation monitor—is hard at work in Japan, cleaning up radioactive debris from the Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear power meltdown.

The Atlas disaster relief robot. Though still very much in development, the Boston Dynamics disaster relief robot, Atlas, is equipped to perform search-and-rescue and other humanitarian tasks in dangerous or remote environments. Atlas can do everything from remove debris to repairing leaky pipes.

These six examples represent some of the many world-changing efforts of today’s robotics engineers. Several more life-saving projects and startups emerge every year to protect the things we hold most dear.

How to Become a Robotics Engineer

Those interested in entering the field of robotics have many paths from which to choose. Generally speaking, robotics engineers enter the field with at least a bachelor’s degree, although some employers prefer candidates with master’s degrees. Prospective engineers interested in research and development or teaching typically need a doctoral degree. What students choose to study, however, depends mostly on what they want to do.

Robotiq breaks robotics systems down into three disciplines:

  • Mechanical engineering. Mechanical engineers design and develop the physical body of the robot, including motors and actuators.
  • Electrical engineering. Electrical engineers see to the nervous system that powers robots and connects their sensors.
  • Computer engineering. Computer scientists and engineers develop the robot’s brain—the processing center that gathers, analyzes and responds to information.

While it is relatively simple to divide robotics into neat engineering disciplines, the reality is much more muddled. All systems are related, which means mechanical engineers cannot effectively design a robot unless they understand its electrical and sensory needs. Electrical engineers need to know what data computer engineers need for their programs. That is why Li encourages future roboticists to diversify their skills and training before entering what is still a relatively young field.

“I feel like we are in the 1970s of the PC industry—just getting out of the hobbyist category, getting out of the labs,” says Li. “Focus on multi-disciplinary training. These technologies are very complicated, and you need to be fluent in software, electrical, mechanical, and other systems—not focused on a single discipline.”

Fortunately, several colleges have created robotics engineering degree programs that aim to strike a balance across these disciplines. However, robotics engineering remains a new major, so these programs are less prevalent than those of mechanical, materials, electrical and computer engineering, and physics. Students who choose to major in one of these fields can build their robotics know-how through additional coursework or certification and work experience.

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