AFAM: Hello Audren, and thank you for willing to share with AFAM! After receiving your PhD at MIT, you found a position of a Research Scientist at Analog Garage, a branch of Analog Devices Inc. Please tell us more about your job. How is your typical day look like? Can you tell us about the projects you are working at?
Audren: Being a Research Scientist is quite alike being a Ph.D. student, except that your Research is more directly targeted at a given product rather than being of general interest. The idea is to develop new Research that is needed by a given product to achieve its desired performance, and as such, your Research is really well guided. My group at Analog Garage serves as an incubator for new product ideas, or as support for ongoing product developments within Analog Devices. As such, a typical day is always a mix between hardware and software development on the given product we are advancing. We also have several meetings with the Business Unit teams that will bring the product to market. This part of the job is really important, as it grounds the research work to focus on what the product really needs. Analog Devices has many different Business Units, and my projects varied from healthcare monitoring systems to the development of sensors for the automotive industry.
AFAM: can you tell us a bit more about your 8 years at MIT in master’s and later PhD program?
Audren: When I joined MIT in 2010, I had for main objective to learn as much about Robotics as I possibly could. I had only a few basic knowledge of Control Systems, and Mechanical Design, but I did not know much in terms of Algorithms, Sensing, Planning nor System Design. The Master degree gave me the opportunity to develop an underwater stingray robot, which necessitated to be fully integrated, with its own power, sensing, and control system. The project took 3 years to complete and it taught me how to advance a complex project with many different parts at play. With the Master degree completed, I decided to explore another field of Robotics: aerial drones. I have always been fascinated with flight, and I wanted my Ph. D. thesis to be focused on the development of an autonomous drone. This proved to be a five-year long endeavor, with many new domains of Robotics to discover and learn from. MIT is however a great place for that, as it proposes many Robotics courses taught with world-leading researchers. The classes you take are there to help you advance your research and learn all the tools you need to complete your thesis project. I particularly enjoyed how easy it is to plan out your curriculum, and to be able to choose each individual class. My Master and Ph. D. degrees took a long time to complete, but it gave me the opportunity to learn about many domains of Robotics, and to apply this knowledge into real systems.
AFAM: being in robotics today is it about business and professional opportunities or about changing the world?
Audren: Yes and yes! This is great time to be a Roboticist, with physical robots already in our homes (e.g. Roomba) or on the street (e.g. Tesla), and virtual robots answering our questions just by chatting with us (e.g. Siri). There are a lot of opportunities for commercial and industrial robotic developments, which used to be science-fiction, and can now become reality. I believe that these have the potential to greatly improve our quality of life,.provided that they are implemented carefully, with proper regulations and supervision in place. As an example, the promise given by autonomous driving is to drastically lower the number of car accidents, and to enable the advent of shareable robo-taxis that should help reduce an ever-growing traffic in dense urban areas. This vision will only work if the autonomous vehicle and human-operated ones can coexist safely on the same roads. It demands that autonomous vehicles properly adapt to any human behavior, and that regulatory institutions implement an appropriate legal framework to monitor and safely introduce autonomous vehicles on the public roads. We can pursue business opportunities and change the world, responsibly.
AFAM: robotics is a very broad sector. There are a lot of industries impacted by automation nowadays – transportation, manufacturing, healthcare, services, food (read our interviews in Food for Thought series), to mention a few. Which of the industries are undergoing the biggest transformations today according to you and where to look for major opportunities? What robotics companies/startups were impressive for you in the past year – 2 years? Could you give us TOP 5 US robotics startups to follow?
Audren: It's hard to pick one field in particular to nominate as the most impacted by robotics. Virtually every industry is affected by robotics progress, as robotics is often synonymous with repeatability, autonomy, and dependability. One sector that appears to be the most transformed by robotics is agriculture. Farms are a perfect environment for autonomous robots, as they provide a simple environment (usually a flat, obstacle-free, enclosed field), and the tasks to be performed are repetitive. Robots are also expected to transform warehouse management, with Amazon Robotics currently leading the way. As I mentioned earlier, we should eventually expect to see autonomous vehicles on the road, likely in delivery tasks or urban taxi networks. Regarding robotic companies that impressed me the most, I have to mention Skydio as my favorite one. Skydio offers what is possibly the most advanced autonomous robot available commercially: the Skydio 2. This drone is capable of flying itself in virtually any environment, mapping its way through and planning trajectories on-the-fly to avoid any detected obstacle. Other startups (and not so-much startups anymore) that I follow are Farmwise, Optimus Ride, RightHand Robotics, and Nutonomy.
AFAM: we have a lot of students every year looking for internship and later on, job opportunities in robotics (including on the US market). What advice would you give to these students? What skills and knowledge are crucial to acquire to be successful searching for internships?
Audren: The easiest path to obtaining an internship or job opportunity in the US is to be a student within the US, or to have graduated with an American degree. The reason is that there is a significant demand for employment, and it is simply easier to hire someone that already has a visa, that can be physically present for the job search, and whose references are familiar from a US perspective. The biggest advice I can share is to start early. I already had in mind to apply for a US Master when I started at Arts et Metiers, and I aligned my curricular choices with this goal in mind. There are also plenty of opportunities outside the US, with many of them within France. For instance, I did my first internship in Robotics at the Laboratoire d'Ingénierie des Systèmes de Versailles, and I learned about this position through the Arts et Metiers alumni network, which is a great resource of information. Make sure to contact AFAM (becoming a part of Shasta internship program if you are looking for an internship in the US) and former students that work in your field of interest, as they are most likely to share with you their insights on the field. Finally, the key to a successful job or internship search is to have a goal in mind and to align your search towards internships and jobs that can get you to that goal. If you show your prospective employer that you have planned out a path that is consistent with your career goals, you show that you are dedicated.
AFAM: Thank you, Audren, for sharing!
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Photo: courtesy of Audren
Other interviews in "People and Robots" series: