Peace, Love, and all that hippy stuff: robotics career outside the defense industry?

I guess I’m a pretty typical story. I did FIRST in highschool, and mentored FLL, mentored FRC in college and MCed a little, and now I am graduating and looking for a job.

Oh the things you must post delicately when you know you are not anonymous on the internet.

I’ve got friends who serve in the military and, if somehow drafted, I too would serve. I really want to press home the distinction between the military and the defense industry because I view them as two totally separate concepts. I’ve got some serious ethical complications with working for the defense industry. I do not support some of the economic practices which keep this industry afloat (can we say military industrial complex?). I don’t view this industry as evil, and I don’t think any less of the people who choose that life for themselves. I simply don’t want to put myself in a situation where I have a conflict of interest between the things I believe are good for the world and what needs to happen for me to earn a living. This life may be right for many people, but I have a growing certainty that it is not right for me.

I’m graduating a CS major and hope to be employed in the field of robotics. I’ve done a lot of interviews with firms that have many divisions (one medical equipment, commercial avionics, and military avionics, another company does work for a large number of non-military government branches as well as the military ones) but, for whatever reason, I always wind up sitting across the table from an interviewer who wants me to work for the military division of the company, and consequently that is where the offer letters come from.

I can not be the only one who this dealt with this issue. Does anybody know a list of robotics (particularly software/embedded) employers who do non-defense work? I’m checking around currently for non-profits and research labs as they don’t have the same sort of economic ties to this system, but there has to be a way to view this field that is not in varying shades of defense industry.

I’m frankly shocked how much of the robotics field is military-related.

Has anybody else had this issue? How did you solve it?

Change your terminology a bit any you’ll find civilian applications.

‘robotics’ tends to be a military/government term.
‘motion control’ tends to be more industrial.

I had the same problem, which is what led me to DEKA. The only defense work we do ( that I am aware of ) is the prosthetic arm. It is a great place to work, although Manchester NH isn’t my cup of tea.

Heartland Robotics looks interesting ( but brand new ), and our Boston Regional Queen Mikell happens to be employed there.

I’m not sure this is your cup of tea but you might want to look into the toy industry. Some of their applications may be lower level than what you are interested in, but they have their own set of challenges. Look through a toy store and think about how many things you see that involve automated or sensor driven actions. It could be fun!

Good luck.

Heh, that is not quite the only defense-related project. Check out the “Bengie Bungie”

How could I forget?! I guess I had subconsciously moved that ( and “the other one” ) into the amusement park ride category.

So I guess DEKA is a defense contractor too, if you squint really hard. I’m working on a decidedly non-DoD project.

There are definitely non-defense robotics companies out there! It’s just that, well, defense pays well, and most robotics companies that have been started bootstrapped themselves with military research funding. That’s starting to change, though.

Check out this by no means comprehensive list:

In Boston:
Heartland Robotics
iRobot (their Home Robots side)
Kiva Systems
Harvest Automation (though they are very early stage and not really hiring)

In Pittsburgh:
I don’t know all the names, but many companies have spun out of CMU that do “field robotics”. There’s also a medical robotics company called Aethon that’s kind of cool.

In California:
Vision Robotics
Intuitive Surgical
InTouch Health
Wowwee Toys

My other suggestion is to look at The Robot Report and check out their list of companies at the bottom. Non-military robots are out there, I promise!

On the more industrial side, there’s always:


Of course, considering how this country has thrown it’s manufacturing sector under the bus, I’m not sure those are positions where long-term employment is really a feasible goal.

I too had this dilemma. My own technical interests and proficiencies were highly convergent with those of the defense industry. My own ideology, on the other hand, was largely incompatible with the idea of working for the military.

Ultimately, I had a choice to make. Non-defense oriented opportunities were out there, but in general they were lower paying positions at fairly small (and therefore unstable) companies. In contrast, the defense industry is willing to pay you top dollar to ply your trade, and you know that the Boeings, Lockheeds, and BAEs of the world aren’t going anywhere.

I eventually took a position doing applied research and development for a major defense contractor. The things I work on are generally far enough removed from the front line (think communications and intelligence) that I am able to live with myself at the end of the day. And many of the technologies that we work on may be funded by defense, but their applications will have far reaching consequences in the civilian sector as well. This is in contrast to one of the other places I interviewed where they showed me the bomb racks that I would be working on. Maybe it’s just rationalization, but I think that the two situations are very different.

I guess what I’m saying is twofold:

  1. Defense is a huge industry with many opportunities, deep pockets, and the ability to work on projects too advanced and/or expensive for other sectors.

  2. Not all jobs in defense are equal.

Best of luck to you.

PS - I also should probably say that I am extremely happy with my job. I get to work on cutting edge projects with some of the best and brightest minds in the industry. Also know that even though our companies require that employees say things like “my opinion does not reflect the opinion of <my employer here>”, likewise our employers don’t necessarily reflect the opinions of their employees (at least at the non-executive level). I work in an office dominated by people of similar ideologies to mine.

Many medical devices use robotics (as someone else pointed out, frequently called “motion control”). Think imaging technology, precise cancer therapy administration, fine motion control surgery, etc. Companies like Carestream here in Rochester employ embedded systems engineers to create the robot control systems for these tools. Check the medical imaging field. Your device may end up having uses on the battlefield but it would be to save a life.

It’s definitely fun… :smiley:


In Pittsburgh:
Redzone Robotics -
RobotC -

In Houston:
TRAClabs - (works with NASA-JSC)
Schilling Robotics -
Oceaneering -
SonSub -
Jacobs - Does contract work with NASA-JSC robotics
Big Oil Service Companies ( Schlumberger, Halliburton, Baker-Hughes, Weatherford)


As a few others pointed out, you may want to look into “motion control” and “controls” rather than “robotics.” In addition, as Jared pointed out, the defense industry is a big place. Many devices in the defense industry are applied to civilian and private industry (GPS is the perfect example). Granted, it sounds like your problems come more from the “iron triangle” relationship and ethics rather than the moral dilemmas caused by violence.

I wouldn’t abandon the search within the defense industry and defense-related jobs entirely, as you might find one that suits your interests, desires, and ethical standards. Perhaps even look into a government job rather than a contractor (assuming you’re willing to take the pay cut for the job security).

I have completely different problem. I keep looking for an internship for the summer.(anyone out there that knows of one PM me please.) However, most of the response I get is “are you comfortable leaving the country?”. The answer is no. I don’t want to go anywhere that I can’t point to on a map. Perhaps my problem is your solution. You could look into jobs in other countries. Some of them would be more then happy to pay to ship you wherever you need to work. Granted, they probably won’t pay as well as the government, but stuff probably costs less there too.

PS: Toy companies are my dream job. Hope I get there one day.

Three words:

Tape-Backup Libraries.

There are two companies that I know of that build tape picking/placing robots:

Other places tape drives, which are Sony, IBM, or Quantum.

Here is the robot system I worked on once upon a time:


Disney, Universal and other theme parks need robotics engineers as well. One of our college mentors got an internship with one.

In California, Adept Technology:

Siemens has a lot of automation technology that you could look into if you haven’t already.

I don’t have a Career in the Robotics or “Motion Control” field but I do work for a company that does a lot of Defense work.

Realistically, working for a company that works for the Government isn’t that bad. At a certain point yes, you are working to make or build something that supports war but you’re also going to be working to build something that may save lives or make an impact in a war ravaged country. Sometimes it’s all about how you look at your work.

The biggest advantage to working the Defense industry is that it’ll survive through a failing economy. At my job Business is booming and we’ve added two new people to our Engineering Dept in the last month. Sometimes, in times like this you just have to “settle” for a job that’s not perfect and just remember that it’ll give you valuable experience you can take elsewhere.

There are all kinds of industries that use robotics/sensors/FRC skills. As an example - factories…they make products (like bottles), then fill the bottles (to a certain level/weight with soap or soda or whatever) and package them on skids, mostly by using automation and there’s a lot of engineering to it as well. Or high tech industries like the silicon wafer industry (MEMC is here in St. Peters) that use alot of robotics because of the precise specs and cleanliness that is needed to produce chips. One of our lead mentors is a maintenance person for a local hospital group - there are lots of things that are automated in the medical field and all of that needs to be designed, developed, implemented and maintained.

We watch a lot of “How it’s Made”, and you’d be suprised at the automation/robotics that are in almost every industry (making of golf carts to marble sinks to food).

Good luck in your search.