A major investment in the future

Go-live for the only Robotics bachelor's degree programme in Germany

 © Stefan Bausewein

After around two years of planning, the time is finally nigh: the new Robotics degree programme started in Schweinfurt in the 2020/2021 winter semester. Around 150 students are filling the new degree programme with life. An important step for the future of FHWS and the region.

Whether in industry or as a vacuum cleaner at home: robots make life easier. Who would have thought that the term robot is already 100 years old? Humanoid machines were already referred to as robots in the Czech sci-fy play “R.U.R.” by Karel Čapek in 1921. However, the robots assumed dominion over humanity in the drama.

By now, robots are part of everyday life. Since they were extensively introduced in industrial production in the second half of last century, the technologies surrounding robots have developed significantly. Nowadays, it is no longer difficult to build the kinematics, i.e. the structure with joints and limbs, of a robot. What really makes a robot is not the appearance, but rather its application. This in particular can no longer be covered in a normal mechatronics or mechanical engineering degree programme, however. FHWS now wants to launch a new era here with its bi-lingual robotics bachelor's degree programme. “Students should be able to program robots themselves and put them to the desired use,” explains programme director Prof. Dr. Jean Meyer. But FHWS wants not only to advance teaching, but also to set new standards in research. A research professorship, which has been taken up by Prof. Dr. Tobias Kaupp, was also created for this. Prof. Kaupp was specially brought over from Sydney, Australia for this exciting challenge. “The demand in the field of robotics from regional companies is immense,” says Prof. Kaupp. The robotics expert is therefore hoping for good collaboration with regional companies in Schweinfurt.

Kick-off after just two years of planning

FHWS commenced planning for the bachelor's degree programme together with experts from companies and with involvement from other higher education institutions at the first international robotics forum in January 2019. During the forum, the participants discussed what challenges the future holds and, accordingly, what the key points of academic education should look like. This should ensure that graduates are able to react optimally to the needs of the economy. The focus of the Robotics degree programme therefore lies in the field of computer science. In particular, software development and artificial intelligence (AI) are at the heart of the degree because that is where the actual added value lies.

Future students also have a major robotics practical training block right from the outset, in which they can apply the content in their own projects. “Roboticists are not theorists. Roboticists are makers,” says Prof. Meyer. In addition, it was important to many companies that ethical principles are not left out. “It is only a question of time until robots are taking on not only tasks, but also decisions,” says the programme director. The degree programme offers three specialisations for the sixth and seventh semesters: industrial, mobile and humanoid or service robotics.

The two professors see great potential in the field of industrial robotics in particular. Robots should thus no longer complete monotonous tasks, but rather should work together with people. The person takes on all of the complex aspects, and the robot supports them with its power, endurance and precision. “There is an immense amount of potential in this combination which we urgently need to develop!” says Prof. Meyer. But the other two fields of robotics will change the world as well. Mobile robotics will affect urban planning in the future, according to Prof. Kaupp. Here, the focus is on the topic of autonomous movement: how do goods or people get from A to B without human intervention? Service robots will take on countless tasks like cleaning or doing the laundry in every household. “In the future, robots will take on many household chores and thus save valuable time,” Prof. Meyer predicts. “People will be prepared to pay a lot of money for this.”

Degree programme starts at the right time

FHWS was one of the first higher education institutions in Germany to recognise this potential a few years ago. The new degree programme thus started in the 2020/2021 winter semester as a TWIN programme with around 150 students. This means: the classes will be held in both German and English so that international students can also benefit from the new degree programme. This programme should be successively expanded to other higher education institutions as a “World Twin” so that students can switch seamlessly to other partner higher education institutions and vice versa. Contact has already been made with a Chinese, an Indian and an American higher education institution to this end, says the programme director. The two professors hope that a total of around 1,100 students will fill the new bachelor's degree programme with life in the future.

CERI (Center Robotics) plays a key role here. All disciplines should be brought together in this competence centre. Five new professorships in the following disciplines are currently being staffed to this end:  machine vision, machine learning, mobile robotics, industrial robotics and service robotics. “As a result, robotics can be taught at an integrated level, across faculties and interdisciplinarily,” says Prof. Kaupp. It is hoped that a bridge can be built between CERI and the Competence Center Artificial Intelligence and Robotics (CAIRO), which is also part of FHWS, in Würzburg, according to Prof. Meyer. Robotics is a good area of application for AI. “If we marry the two together, then we will have created something truly great,” the programme director thinks.

Machine is explained to students
The degree programme should start in the 20/21 winter semester with around 150 German and foreign students. (© Stefan Bausewein)
Students control a robot arm
Roboticists work hand in hand on various practical applications. (© Stefan Bausewein)

New stimuli for the region

Of course, the Schweinfurt region should also benefit from this new degree programme. Robotics companies can thus establish themselves here or students can even found their own start-ups. Prof. Meyer is optimistic: “We want to become an elite school for robotics. When top experts are needed, I would be delighted if they came from Schweinfurt in the future.” It is important to remain realistic, however, particularly in the field of AI, Prof. Kaupp explains. “It is all about planting the seeds for the first time and seeing what thrives,” according to the research professor. It is possible that master's degree programmes will be built on this bachelor's in the future. But time will tell. Programme director Prof. Meyer therefore hopes “that the Robotics degree programme has precisely the resounding effect that it currently suggests”. Many companies are already in close contact with the FHWS experts because well-trained roboticists are in higher demand than ever.

FHWS wants to make its contribution to the rapid development here. Prof. Meyer clarifies: “I believe that we find ourselves in the position today with robotics that we were in with PCs in the 80s. We will have a massive breakthrough in a few years.” Robots are getting more intelligent and thus becoming a mass phenomenon. Prof. Kaupp is of the opinion that society as a whole will change, away from physical labour towards intellectual mental work. There will come a time when robots are as widely accepted as a part of everyday life as computers are today.

Profilfoto Alicia Weigel

An article by
Alicia Weigel