What if robots could help relieve pressure on healthcare, or assist the agricultural farmer? If they can actually learn to work together with humans, and thus relieve people? Help people lift heavy things, or help people walk who could no longer do so? Since 2020, it has been possible to follow the Robotics Master at TU Delft, where you are trained to become the robot engineer of the future. This master is about designing intelligent machines and systems that interact with humans. The first batch is now graduating. "For me, the appeal of robotics is that it really solves practical problems."
The engineer of the future
How can robots learn to move and act in environments where there are also humans? And what must a robot engineer be able to do to make a positive contribution to industry and society? These questions are at the heart of the new master's degree. As part of a large team of staff members, teaching experts and administrators, students also worked for two years to create this master's degree.
Former mechanical engineering student Joram van der Sluis says: "As a final assignment in my bachelor, we made a small, autonomous vehicle that could drive 30 kilometres per hour." Van der Sluis enjoyed making a little robot so much that he chose Vehicle Engineering - you could say the precursor to the Robotics Master. "But I missed certain subjects." And apparently there were many people in Delft - both staff and students - who felt the need for a new master's with robotics subjects. Van der Sluis did want to contribute to the development of a master's that he himself would most like to pursue: where everything is included.
The Robotics master's programme focuses on the development of intelligent robots that perceive the environment, plan and make decisions, and control or propel themselves in a place where humans are also at work. The programme is delivered from the Department of Cognitive Robotics in the Faculty of Mechanical Engineering, and the core subjects consist of: Dynamics and Control, Machine Learning, Robot Software Practicals, Robot & Society, Machine Perception, Planning & Decision Making, Human Robot Interaction, and a multidisciplinary project. In the second year, master's students do an internship and a final project.
Van der Sluis: "The second year we worked on this master's with the team, a huge report was written, to get approval, and consultations with lots of professors - you don't just have a new master's degree overnight." Meanwhile, the former student works at Lely (a company that develops robots for the agricultural sector) and the first students of the Robotics Master are already coming to intern or apply. He says: "We see that students coming from this master fit exactly into the role of robotics engineer that you would want to have. They have thought about what they want, about how they want to do it. They know what they want with their lives. And they have a broad base of knowledge, a broad foundation for tackling problems."
Student personal development
Indeed, an important part of the Robotics Master's is personal development of the student, that they think about their future after university. "We were keen to add the student perspective to the master," also explains Rutger Dirks, a former student who worked on the new master's programme in the same team with Van der Sluis. "What we found important is that students learn to reflect on their own working methods. And also reflect: what do they want to do after their studies, what direction do they want to go, what exactly do they want to use robotics for, in what way can it contribute to a better (or cleaner or safer or more pleasant) world?"
Joost de Winter, Associate Professor 'Cognitive Human-Robot Interaction' at 3mE and programme director of the Robotics Master, adds: "Questions from society are also important and we wanted to include them in this programme." And also: as a technical university, you can't really do without a master's like this anymore, he adds. Not only students and staff were enthusiastic about the new programme. De Winter: "You can also say that it was almost an implicit development towards this. Technology is becoming more intelligent, there are more and more computers and also AI in mechanical equipment, so it is also a logical development, you could say, to set up a Robotics Master and train more students who can work with it. Research questions are also increasingly going in that direction: how can we ensure that the machine understands the environment, and plans accordingly, and does things in that complex environment?"
Joost de Winter, programme director: "Research questions are also increasingly moving in that direction: how can we ensure that the machine understands the environment, and plans accordingly, and does things in that complex environment?"
The fact that robots are not the solution to everything without a struggle, and that there is quite a bit of fear of them in the rest of society, is also included in the master's. De Winter says: "The subjects touch on different facets: observing, understanding and handling data well. But also planning and decision making, what can and should the robot do? But also much broader topics: how will the robot interact safely with other robots, or with people? Safety and ethics are definitely in there." So when master's students in this programme get questions about killer bots or robots that are going to take over our world, they have their answers ready. De Winter: "Of course, it remains in the main a technical study, but the robotics student from Delft is also well placed to engage in more ethical or sociological discussions."
Attractiveness of robotics
Students Kirsten Heyns and George Potter are now in the second year of the Robotics master. Heyns did a bachelor's degree in engineering medicine, but always had an interest in medical robotics. In using robots for operations, for example, or developing exoskeletons for people who have difficulty walking. In her graduation project, she is now working on such an exoskeleton for the upper arms. This is intended for people with muscle disease, so that they can pick up items again, allowing them to function in everyday life. Heyns hopes to start working for a medical technology company after graduation in spring 2023. "Using robotics to find tumours on MRI scans, for example, is also something I find interesting," she says.
George Potter initially doubted whether the Robotics master's would suit him, but he took the gamble. "It wasn't too bad at all, I even really liked it, I wouldn't want to do anything else." He is now doing an internship at TNO. "That's where I also want to graduate. I am working with Boston Dynamics' SPOT robot (see photos) on a computer vision project: we are trying to recognise and locate objects in the world of SPOT." Potter believes one of the advantages of this master's is its breadth, and its focus on reflection. "We have a collaboration with Studium Generalum, there we talk about the role of the engineer in society, and what it should be. The other day we had as a theme: fairness in AI. What can be dangers when working with AI, and how can we make sure robots are fair and make fair decisions? What I like is that this is all very forward-looking, and reflective. Robotics is just the future."
George Potter, student: "We also talk about the engineer's role in society, and what it should be"
Agrees Heyns: "For me, the appeal of robotics is that it really solves practical problems. For example, in the medical world: operations can be performed much better and more precisely using robotics. And of course we also think about questions like: how to make sure that care doesn't get chilly when applying robotics in hospitals? But also if you look at the problems at Schiphol Airport this summer: you know that robotics can start solving problems that are now in play on a large scale. I find that very interesting."
In the first year (2020), 104 students applied for this Robotics Master's, and in 2021 there were 120. A number have already graduated or are in the process of doing so. Click here to read more.
A digital society is long overdue: from satellites in space, your smartphone, traffic lights to robots that clean up plastic from the seabed. The question is how we design and set up this society as well and responsibly as possible. At TU Delft, we invent and design both digital technologies and their societal applications. Read more about our societal challenge Digital Society.