So you want to build robots? Maybe pursue a career in robotics? The first thing you should know is that there's a lot of excitement about the future of robotics. It's a field that's been growing at a steady pace, and as robots become more advanced and new types of robots emerge, they promise to have a big impact on healthcare, manufacturing, education, transportation, entertainment, logistics, and many other industries.
The second thing you should know is that we can't tell you just one thing you can do to get started in robotics. There are many ways to get started, and different people take different paths. But that's actually good news: You have many choices, and this guide will help you navigate your options.
Here's what we will cover:
- How to start building robots
- How to find robotics events and competitions
- How to get a degree in robotics
- How to join the global robotics community
How to start building robots
The best introduction to robots is to just start experimenting and tinkering with them. A pile of loose motors, sensors, and microcontrollers may look daunting at first, but we'll help you find options that match your skill level: beginner, intermediate, or advanced.
1. Beginner level: Robot coding
If you'd rather get more familiar with how robots work before trying to assemble one from scratch, here's an option to consider: programmable robots. These robots will help you learn the basics of coding as well as key concepts in robotics—such as the capabilities that define what a robot is and differentiate robots from other machines. One challenge with programmable robots is that they vary widely in terms of their capabilities and price tags. Here are some suggestions:
Lego sets, and in particular the Lego Mindstorms NXT and EV3, are great for beginners, but they are not on sale anymore, after Lego retired the Mindstorms product line in late 2022.
2. Intermediate level: Robot kits
Okay, you're ready to advance to the next level: building robots.
If you're new to electronics, consider a beginners kit that includes all the parts you need, plus a detailed manual and sample code. There are dozens of kits that let you put together a basic robot, like a wheeled robot or robotic arm, and then explore different behaviors by changing their programming. In fact, there are too many to list them all here, so we'll point you to online stores where you can explore the different kits available:
On the sites above, you can also find spare electronics components to build your own robot, once you're ready to come up with your own designs.
Another option is adapting and improving on robots created by other makers. You can find complete projects, with instructions and lists of parts, on robotics sites and forums on the web. Below are some places to scout for ideas—and also ask for help if you're stuck with a project:
- MAKE Magazine
- RobotShop Community
- StackExchange - Electronics
3. Advanced level: Robot platforms
Finally, if you are ready to explore some pretty advanced robot platforms, we have ideas for you. These are some of the most advanced robot hardware and software out there, and working with them will required knowledge of electronics, computers, operating systems, and networking. Here are two options:
TurtleBot: This robot development platform features a mobile base, camera and 3D sensor, and advanced open-source software, including the Robot Operating System (ROS), which is used by top research labs and companies all over the world. The original TurtleBot was developed over 10 years ago, and there are currently two newer models for sale: Turtlebot 3 and TurtleBot 4.
Create 3: This mobile robot was created by iRobot as a robotics development platform. Create 3 is based on the Roomba robotic vacuum hardware (without the cleaning module). It's equipped with infrared, cliff, and bumper sensors, buttons, lights, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, and it runs ROS 2. You can program the robot using Python or iRobot's web-based visual coding app, and also use a robot simulator called Gazebo.
One thing people say when they see these robots is, "Hey, it doesn't have an arm, how can it do anything useful?" Exactly. You got yourself your first project.
How to find robotics events and competitions
Learning how to build your own robot is great, but sharing what you know with other robot makers, and learning from them too, could also be a lot of fun.
You can form your own robotics group, or look for existing clubs and meetups in your area. Some groups get together just to share ideas and show off their creations, while others form teams to participate in robotics competitions like FIRST, VEX, or robot combat leagues. There are also gatherings like Maker Faire and Arduino Day that feature demos and tutorials.
It would be hard to compile a list of all the robotics events and competitions around the world, but here are some highlights.
FIRST Robotics Competition
FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) is a robotics competition designed to teach students the principles of science and engineering and also to promote teamwork and collaboration. FIRST organizes a series of events for students ages 6 to 18. The main program is the FIRST Robotics Competition, in which teams of high school students from all over the world build robots capable of moving and performing tasks, such as balancing on bridges and shooting balls through hoops. If you want to get involved, check to see if your school already has a team in FIRST. And if it doesn't, start one! You can find everything you need to know on FIRST's website.
VEX Robotics Competition
The VEX Robotics Competition, organized by the Robotics Education & Competition Foundation, is a middle school and high school robotics program with more than 20,000 teams from 50 countries playing in over 1,700 competitions worldwide. Each year, the teams are presented with an exciting engineering challenge in the form of a game. Students, with guidance from their teachers and mentors, build innovative robots and compete year-round.
Another popular event is the RoboCup robot soccer tournament. Teams from all over the world participate in regional and national tournaments and in an annual world championship. RoboCup features wheeled and biped robots of various sizes, including humanoids as tall as an adult. The robots play autonomously, using vision to see the ball and AI algorithms to play as a team. RoboCup participants are typically associated with universities, and the best way to get involved is to find a team or committee near where you live.
Other robot events
Below is a list of major robotics events that have attracted a lot of interest from robot enthusiasts everywhere. In addition to these, we also suggest looking in your area for local robotics clubs and meetups, which are becoming increasingly popular.
- Arduino Day: A worldwide celebration of Arduino's birthday, with talks, demos, and tutorials streamed live.
- BattleBots: One of the world's largest robot combat competitions, with events broadcast on TV and online.
- BEST Robotics: A middle and high school robotics competition in which schools participate at no cost and whose mission is to engage and excite students about engineering, science, and technology and inspire them to pursue careers in these fields.
- Hebocon: A competition held in Tokyo, Japan, where participants try to build the worst robots they can.
- Maker Faire: Taking place all over the world, Maker Faires are where builders, crafters, engineers, and tinkerers of all ages come together to show what they've made and share what they've learned.
- NHRL: The National Havoc Robot League is one of the largest robot combat leagues in the world, with tournaments hosted in the House of Havoc, located in Norwalk, Conn., and streamed digitally to fans worldwide.
- RoboWeek: Every year in April, National Robotics Weeks promotes events and activities to celebrate robotics and STEM across the United States.
- OpenSauce: The first edition will take place July 2023 in San Francisco, featuring some of the most famous science YouTubers like Mark Rober and Colin Furze.
- Open Hardware Summit: An annual conference dedicated to the rapidly growing open source hardware movement.
- RoboGames: This annual gathering takes place in California and calls itself the "Olympics of Robots," with 50 different events.
- Robo-One: A popular robot competition in Japan featuring one-on-one matches between small and medium-size humanoids.
Events for robotics professionals
If you'd like to see where professionals who work in robotics gather, here's a sample of events, including research conferences and trade shows.
- Automate: Organized by the Association for Advancing Automation (A3), it's the biggest robotics trade show in North America, taking place in Detroit, Mich.
- Automatica: One of the world's largest trade fairs for automation and robotics, taking place every year in Munich, Germany.
- AUVSI Xponential: A trade show focused on autonomous robotic technology and systems, organized by the Association for Uncrewed Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI).
- ICRA: The IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation (ICRA) is one of the largest and most prestigious advanced robotics gatherings, bringing together the world's top academics, researchers, and industry representatives.
- IROS: The IEEE/RSJ International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems (IROS), sponsored by the IEEE Robotics and Automation Society and the Robotics Society of Japan, is one of the largest and most influential robotics research conferences worldwide.
- iREX: The International Robot Exhibition, first held in 1974, takes place every two years in Tokyo, Japan, and is one of the largest robot exhibitions in the world.
- ProMat: A trade show for supply chain and material handling professionals, it attracts a lot of automation and robotics companies as well.
- ROSCon: Organized by the Open Source Robotics Foundation and held annually since 2012, this event brings together ROS (Robot Operating System) developers of all levels.
How to get a degree in robotics
If you're already into building robots and are looking for undergraduate and graduate degrees in robotics and related areas, this section's for you.
As robotics researcher and entrepreneur Rodney Brooks explains, robotics serves as a unifying theme for a lot of science and technology disciplines that come together to help humans solve problems using autonomous and intelligent systems. Indeed, it takes different skills to design, build, and program a robot.
Many roboticists have degrees in electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, or computer science. But you don't have to get a degree in one of those fields to become a roboticist. You can study bioengineering and focus on the intersection of robotics and medicine. You can get a degree in mathematics and work on artificial intelligence.
In fact, most engineering schools don't offer full-fledged robotics degrees but rather undergraduate and graduate-level courses in robotics. These schools also have laboratories specializing in robotics. There are too many options to list here, so we're including a selection of schools and labs from around the world that have relatively big robotics programs:
- Beijing Institute of Technology's Intelligent Robotics Institute
- Carnegie Mellon University's Robotics Institute
- École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL)'s School of Engineering
- ETH Zurich's Master in Robotics, Systems, and Control Program
- Georgia Tech's Institute for Robotics and Intelligent Machines
- German Aerospace Center (DLR)'s Institute of Robotics and Mechatronics
- Harvard's School of Engineering and Applied Sciences
- Italian Institute of Technology (IIT)
- Karlsruhe Institute of Technology's Institute for Anthropomatics and Robotics
- Laboratory for Analysis and Architecture of Systems (LAAS)
- McGill University's Centre for Intelligent Machines
- MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL)
- MIT Media Lab's Personal Robots Group
- Montpellier Laboratory of Informatics, Robotics, and Microelectronics (LIRMM)
- Northeastern University's Institute for Experiential Robotics
- Osaka University's School of Engineering
- Queensland University of Technology's Centre for Robotics
- Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory
- Stanford Robotics Lab
- Technical University Munich's Robotics and Autonomous Systems
- University of California, Berkeley (Department of Electrical Engineering & Computer Sciences)
- University of Pennsylvania's General Robotics, Automation, Sensing & Perception (GRASP) Laboratory
- University of Tokyo's Jouhou System Kougaku (JSK) Laboratory
- Waseda University's Humanoid Robotics Institute
- Worcester Polytechnic Institute's Robotics Engineering Program
The sites below offer introductory and advanced course material on robotics, AI, and related areas:
- MIT/Harvard edX
- MIT OpenCourseWare
- QUT Robot Academy
- Stanford Engineering Everywhere
How to join the global robotics community
If you're already working in the robotics field and would like to network and share information with fellow roboticists, you're covered, too.
The world's top roboticists are members of the IEEE Robotics & Automation Society (RAS). And you can become a member, too! RAS is an organization open to all researchers and professionals working in robotics and related fields. You can network with the other 15,000 members, collaborate, exchange information, and look for career opportunities.
RAS publishes one magazine and three journals that are among the highest-ranked publications in the field based on citations and impact. RAS also organizes the two largest research robotics conferences: the IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation (ICRA) and the IEEE International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems (IROS). Thousands of roboticists converge at these conferences, which feature paper presentations, live robot demos, keynote talks, and an exhibit hall for robotics companies.
There are a variety of ways to get involved with RAS, through local and student chapters around the world. RAS also has 28 technical committees that track developments and encourage innovation in all areas of automation, robotics, and AI. Visit the RAS website to find out more.