UNM-LA robotics
UNM-LA Robotics student Dustin Bittner and Applied Technologies Chair and Assistant Professor Don Davis fine tune a robot used to promote the program.  
Credit: UNM-LA

Want to build robots for movies or underwater exploration? The University of New Mexico-Los Alamos’ popular Robotics program can help you do just that.

Boasting the only undergraduate degree program in Robotics in New Mexico, UNM-LA’s Associate in Applied Sciences (AAS) prepares graduates for employment in manufacturing and industrial firms, government agencies, medical facilities, educational organizations, emergency responding agencies, security and surveillance firms and research and development groups.

Recently, students in the Robotics program have built robots with unique “swerve steering” drive systems that allow the robot to go forward, backward and sideways. Another student designed and 3-D printed the drive wheels for a tracked robot system, and another student just started building a 1000-foot-depth-capable undersea remotely operated vehicle or ROV robot submarine. 

“Robotics students are looking for a gainful career path in our high-tech 21st century economy,” said Applied Technologies Chair and Assistant Professor Don Davis. “Robotics is an ever-increasing component of both 21st century industry and 21st century emerging technology.”

Davis, a national Presidential Awardee for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching, created the Pre-Engineering Program at Los Alamos High School, where he has taught since 2007. Los Alamos High School partners with Los Alamos Early College and Career Academy, or LAECCA, to help students work towards a college degree while attending high school by receiving both college and high school credit for their work.

Seeing a need for high school students to continue studying robotics at the university level, Davis added courses at UNM-LA, and in February 2013 gained the approval of the Robotics AAS degree.

“About six years ago, I designed Advanced Robotics (ELCT 163) and Advanced Robotics 2 (ELCT 264) at UNM-LA, two beginning courses, to allow students taking Robotics 1 and Robotics 2 at Los Alamos High School to continue doing more advanced work in robotics,” Davis said. “The two Industrial Robotics courses were added so that students would be prepared to enter commercial robotics related positions by achieving three different industrial robotics certifications from FANUC America Robotics, the largest producer of commercial robotics in the world.” FANUC is an acronym for factory automation numerical control.

Davis recently designed and built a robot for “The Space Between Us,” a major motion picture to be released next year starring Gary Oldman, Asa Butterfield and Carla Gugino. As a professional in the robotics field, Davis is a role model for his students and helps demonstrate what they can achieve with the degree.

Joshua Bristol-Cossey, a 2014 graduate of UNM-LA’s AAS Robotics program, was hired by Los Alamos National Laboratories for a student position as an Accelerator Operator this past year. He said the program gave him the experience of electromechanical systems and technician skills that LANL was looking for in an accelerator operator, and that the work is quite interesting to him.

“I actually intended to go into computer science,” Bristol-Cossey said, “but it was too tedious. I’m happy I ended up doing Robotics.” He added that Davis’s experience in the robotics industry was a bonus to his students, as was the small class size at UNM-LA.

While a student at UNM-LA, Bristol-Cossey assisted Davis as an intern with a variety of tasks including organizing robotics kits, repairing a demonstration robot by designing and 3D-printing more efficient parts and creating a new demonstration robot.

“Don Davis is an excellent instructor who was always very open to answering my questions, and offering constructive criticism,” Bristol-Cossey said. He encouraged other students interested in robotics to give it a try. “It’s a very open field and you may not expect what can come out of it.”

UNM-LA and Davis endeavor to give students the tools to find and apply for employment. During the capstone course of the degree program, Robotics Synthesis, students integrate all their acquired skills in areas such as electronics, mechanical engineering, control systems, CAD, 3-D rapid prototyping, machining, and welding to create a robotic project that demonstrates their robotics mastery. Part of the coursework includes creating a DVD with video and photos documenting their entire engineering design process, fabrication, testing and refining, that can be shown to potential employers.

“At the National Science Foundation Advanced Technology Education (NSF ATE) Conference in Washington, D.C., human resources personnel from major high tech corporations indicated that the attributes of integrated skill sets, problem solving and hands-on demonstrable evidence of ability, as well as communication and other ‘soft skills’ are what today’s 21st century high tech employers are looking for,” Davis said. “Equipping our students with proof of these abilities is a powerful start to their getting gainful employment.”

Funding from a NSF ATE grant allowed UNM-LA to purchase an industrial robot arm, robotics kits and supplies and a 3-D printer. Davis hopes to continue to see the program grow, and he extended an invitation to qualified LANL employees to consider teaching some of the robotics classes.

“It’s a rapidly evolving field,” Davis said. “We’re seeing more and more students in the program, new and exciting robot designs and components and students pushing the envelope with their robotic creations.”

For more information, visit UNM-LA Robotics program.