Up until now, companies have understood "robot engineers" as specialists who design, test, and repair machines that can be used in a wide array of industrial and government applications. As the use of robotics expands on shop floors, in hospital operating rooms, in everyday households, and in areas like unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) such as drones, the demand for robotics engineering specialists has grown, and the number of universities offering undergraduate and graduate programs in robotics engineering has expanded.

But for many companies--both large and small--the answer to internal expertise in the emerging areas of robotics and drones is more basic. It concerns the answers to questions like "How am I going to internally support my robotics and/or drone force?" and "Who will run my drone and/or robotics?"

These are the rudimentary meat-and-potatoes questions that organizations will face as robotics and drones are more widely implemented. The good news is that we are now at an optimal point for companies to begin to define how their robotics and/or drone operations will work and who will be responsible for them.

Here is sampling of industries and possible operational scenarios.

Case one: Manufacturing. Manufacturers might be in the best "natural state" to expand their capabilities into running and controlling robotics. For decades, they have employed manufacturing engineers who program CAD/CAM systems on the shop floor and who work hand in hand on a daily basis with more conceptual engineering personnel, such as design engineers.

Manufacturing engineers also have an integral understanding of the flow of manufacturing operations on the floor and where information exchanges must be made between different work operations for manufacturing to proceed. Since they have a mix of manufacturing and engineering know-how, they are in an ideal spot to take on the job of running and maintaining robotics and automation in the plant.

Case two: Healthcare. Unlike manufacturing, hospitals and clinics don't have a roster of engineers who specialize in daily operations and CAD/CAM systems. Initially, they are likely to look for someone from their facilities group or IT to run their robotics. In some cases, such as telesurgery or high-precision robots that are used in operating rooms, they might outsource maintenance and operations to the vendor of the robot.

Case three: Logistics and retail. Logistics and retail will employ more robotics and drones to assist in pick, pack, and ship operations in warehouses and to drone-drop merchandise to customers. For large operations, there likely will be a need to use two separate functions in the company to control and run these the assets. Supervision of robotics will require the traditional manufacturing engineering skills such as CAD/CAM, but also will include know-how in warehousing and distribution operations. For drone-based shipping, corporate IT will have to integrate these deliveries with existing supply chain and ERP systems. It's likely that the company will also need a centralized group of operators and operations engineers who function much like an air traffic control center, monitoring drone takeoffs, flights, and deliveries.

Simulyze is one company that has been building a graphical interface for drone operators that incorporates sensor-based geospatial and other information into a 360-degree vision of drone activity.

"We've focused on the effective use of sensors and on ongoing development in operational intelligence," said Kevin Gallagher, president. "Right now, we are working at test sites to see what drone operators are going to need in terms of information that is being made available to them. Today's FAA guidelines for commercial drones specify that drones must be flown within a line of sight but we are also looking at what the operators' needs are going to be beyond the line of sight."

Case four: Mining and agriculture. Drones are already being used in aerial photography, real estate, agriculture, mining, and filmmaking. Many of these companies are relatively small businesses, so they assign one of their field workers (or IT staff) to take charge of the drones they use. The information these folks need includes not only the location of the drone, but IoT feedback from the drone on system status, and especially on battery status if the drone is flying into a headwind and using more battery than the flight plan originally anticipated. Drone control systems also monitor flying altitude, speed, navigation, and even weather conditions surrounding the drone. As these companies build out their drone fleets, they could find it necessary to form a drone operations function instead of expecting a full-time employee in another area to attend to this work on a part-time, as-needed basis.


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Quick glossary: Robotics

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What to do now

Companies can take steps to get ahead of the drone and robotics adoption curves by beginning to determine the nuts and bolts of who will support these technologies inside the companies as they take root--and by investigating the types of tools these individuals will need to do the job. Here are five ways businesses can begin the process.

1: Identify what the uses (and the primary users) of robotics and/or drones will be

If the plan is to add one or two full-time individuals to staff to oversee the technology, a possibility would be to assign them directly to the user departments that will be using the technology.

2: Define what IT's role will be

Another possibility is to assign robotics and drone engineers to IT as a new function since IT ultimately has the responsibility of monitoring assets and integrating them with other systems.

3: See whether there's onboard talent that can transition into an operations engineer role

Companies that use manufacturing engineers might already have individuals who can make the move into an operations engineer slot. In other cases, a company might determine that it will need to hire or outsource this talent.

4: Develop job descriptions

It isn't too early to get HR going on assisting in developing an operations engineer job description. You might not have the position today, but you could well have it in two years.

5: Don't overlook the legal, compliance, and insurance implications of using robotics and drones

Your liability insurer is likely to already have guidelines (and recommended coverage changes) that address new types of machine automation like drones and robots. Internal legal and compliance departments also need to be investigating new liability issues, such as when a drone flies too close to a would-be consumer's home but does not have that consumer's permission to invade property or privacy.

Conclusion

Issues like job descriptions and ramifications for compliance are still only distant points on many organizations' strategic roadmaps. But the advance of the aerial drone market and the robotics market indicate that these technologies will be major business transformers. To take advantage of these new assets, companies need people to run them. Now is the time to start thinking about it.