“As a kid, I always imagined myself being an engineer, it was just a matter of what kind of engineer I would choose to be!”
As a robotics engineer for Exyn Technologies, Inc., Dr. Denise Wong spends most days at work analyzing flight data from autonomous aerial robots. Exyn is utilizing robotics research to develop autonomous aerial robots for commercial applications. The robot that Dr. Wong works on at Exyn “is a quadrotor aerial robot equipped with a wide variety of sensors and a computer that allows the robot to fly autonomously, without a pilot, and maps new environments it has never flown in before.” The goal is to create a tool that can do tasks that are dangerous or impossible for humans, as well as unpleasant and monotonous tasks that humans would rather not do. For example, an autonomous aerial robot could explore areas of a mine that are inaccessible or unstable for people, perform inventory management in large warehouses, or monitor progress on large construction sites.
Inspired by her mother, a chemical engineer, Dr. Wong started her career in robotics on bit of a smaller scale, working with micro robots. She came to the U.S. from Hong Kong for college and first started studying robots as an undergraduate at Cornell University. She responded to an engineering email her sister forwarded looking for students to work on vibrating particle robots. She was encouraged to apply by the wording of the ad, targeting underrepresented students and students with no background in robotics. From this experience she learned how to design a robotic system as well as design and run experiments. This piqued her interest in research and robotics and she went on to receive graduate degrees in engineering from the University of Pennsylvania in the robotics laboratory of Dr. Vijay Kumar. She entitled her thesis: Actuation, Sensing and Control for Micro Bio Robots. She notes that “biology is the best model for finding super small organisms that are well designed for things we’d like robots to do.” Dr. Wong says that working with genetically engineered bacteria that respond to sensor input, such as light, felt like being inside a “science fiction story.”
Dr. Wong initially found it a challenge going from researching microscale robotics to developing aerial robotics, since microscale robots involve different physics than aerial robots. The coding done in research is different than writing commercial code that needs to be more stable and interact with code written by others. In addition, research is a more solitary endeavor and Dr. Wong is now enjoying being on a team at Exyn and having a support network of people all working toward the same goal. She has learned a lot from this experience including how willing colleagues are to help if you ask. She advises anyone thinking of changing careers —
“don’t overthink it! It’s never too late to try something new!”
There is so much about digital technology that Dr. Wong enjoys, such as being able to solve problems that couldn’t be solved before and discovering new information from the large quantities of data that digital technology enables us to collect and analyze. New types of sensors allow humans to “see” things impossible for humans alone. For anyone interested in robotics, she advises students to look to the Internet.
“There’s a lot of open source hardware and software, such as Arduino, that you can get experience and try out in a low risk way some of the common tools in the industry. Get experience with tinkering.”
Dr. Wong also notes that it is equally important to understand the human-user interface, i.e. “how will a non-technical human interact with the robot?”, as well as other computing topics such as networking. She hopes that many people will consider robotics as a career. “Robotics is a great field with many, many opportunities!”