Are autonomous and intelligent systems the future of engineering?

The areas of Artificial Intelligence, Robotics, and Autonomous Systems have seen a significant growth in the education sector in the UK, and globally.

With applications ranging from autonomous vehicles, to advanced industrial and manufacturing systems, continuous growth in this sector is foreseen, as well as an increase in demand for undergraduate as well as specialised postgraduate programmes. It is challenging to cover all the above topics in a single programme, with adequate cover and curriculum coherence; a potential ‘umbrella’ topic is the one of Autonomous and Intelligent Systems (AIS), which sits at the interface between Engineering and Computer Science.

Autonomous and Intelligent Systems programmes would cover the major aspects of Control and Systems Engineering with emphasis on system autonomy and intelligence. This is a fast changing discipline and an important aspect of the programme would be to equip students with the knowledge and skills to develop a strong career in industry, and/or research skills needed to pursue a research career, either in academia or industry. Autonomous Systems is a truly multidisciplinary subject and attracts graduates from many scientific disciplines. Hence, a suitable programme should provide broad analytical and practical skills and experience to apply autonomous and intelligent systems concepts in many professional environments. Example topics could include machine learning, cybersecurity, control systems engineering, intelligent and vision systems, as well as industry-relevant training. Familiarisation with industry-standard software and programming languages would be key for such programmes, as well as suitable research-level individual projects.

In terms of career opportunities, existing data in our discipline show that graduates from such programmes are in high demand. Large organisations and institutes would be able to use their resources and infrastructure to fully utilise the skills of such graduates. Autonomy and intelligence are ubiquitous in modern industry, for example in aerospace systems (manufacturing, non-destructive inspection, certification testing etc.), in the automotive industry (rapid robotic systems and platforms, assembly operations etc.) just to name a few professional examples. However, the true employability strength of such graduates, would be their underpinning engineering knowledge and skills around the AIS discipline, which they would be able to apply to almost all modern industries and applications; from autonomous systems for the vehicles of the future, to intelligent decision-making systems for high impact in societal challenges (such as in healthcare, policy, governance etc.).

Pivotal to the career success of aspiring engineers, would be their engagement with truly multidisciplinary education programmes in the area of Autonomous and Intelligent Systems. Such programmes would build on rigorous fundamentals, expose students to industry-relevant teaching, as well as challenge and stimulate students via research level project-based learning.

Opinion piece by ACSE's Dr George Panoutsos

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*Story as featured in the Hindustan Times