The Broader Perspective
Before you know it, it will be the end of summer. Time to finish that robotics project that’s been lingering on your workbench for weeks, and, economics allowing, perhaps take one more vacation trip. If you’re a student, it’s also the start of a new academic year and time to think about starting or returning to school. It’s also time to think about selecting and pursing a career.
If you’re considering robotics as a field of study, make sure you take the broader perspective. As I’ve mentioned in past editorials, the focus of robotics and — more importantly — robotics technology extends beyond creating Wall-E look-alikes, developing and testing combat robots, and creating automatic gutter cleaners. Although you may have dreams of one day creating the ultimate Cylon, you’ll probably make a bigger splash in the world by working in one of the high-relevance areas that depends directly on robotic technology: medical devices.
The archetypical medical device — the implantable cardiac pacemaker — is shown in the accompanying photo. As you can see, a pacemaker is about half the width of my index finger. The diminutive device monitors the electrical activity of the wearer’s heart and, when it detects a significant aberration in the signal, it generates a signal that paces the heart back into a normal rate and rhythm. And normal is a function of activity — slower for sitting and more rapid for walking or jogging.
To accomplish this feat, the sealed, bio-inert device has to flawlessly sense and respond to the electrical activity of the wearer’s heart for five years or more. Think battery technology, sensor technology, materials engineering, thermal engineering, and electrical engineering.
Moreover, we’re just getting started, as the pacemaker is typically part of a much larger system of devices that rely on robotics technologies. For starters, the pacemaker has to be programmed to suit the physiology of the wearer. An active person with relatively modest cardiac disease requires a set of alarms and an auto pacing rate that are different from someone with severe cardiac disease. This programming is accomplished by a physician or other clinician who uses a wireless programmer that communicates with the embedded pacemaker. A technician monitors the wearer’s EKG through a wireless RF link with the pacemaker and adjusts the triggering and pacing parameters. Similarly, when the patient returns to the clinic for a checkup, the physician’s workstation communicates wirelessly with the pacemaker and downloads — in real time — the battery voltage, lead impedance, pacing activity, and other operating parameters. Think wireless telemetry and electrical engineering.
The clinic use of machines to program and monitor the status of the patient and pacemaker pales in comparison to the supporting technology available from the home. Fuzzy logic within the pacemaker monitors the EKG and, if it detects a problem, it establishes a communications link with a home monitor that, in turn, establishes communications with a web server. Within minutes, an alarm condition appears on the physician’s cell phone or desktop monitor. Think fault-tolerant, real-time communications, computer science, web services, artificial intelligence, and data encryption technology.
Of course, the pacemaker is only one of many free-standing, wearable, or implantable medical devices that relies on robotics related technologies. For a glimpse of the leading edge of medical devices, take a look at medGadget (http://www.medgadget.com) and the medical technology news section of Science Daily (http://www.sciencedaily.com). The take away is, if your interests lie in sensors, computing, AI, communications, and other technologies related to robotics, your career options aren’t limited to competing for the dozen or so positions at NASA for developing planetary vehicles. It’s something to consider when you’re weighing options for a rewarding career. SV