Reach Robotics' Mark Sproule on hiring talent in an automated world

Robotics companies need a special kind of talent to develop robots that operate in harsh environments and remove people from harm’s way

Underwater robotics is making subsea exploration safer, cheaper and more accessible. Using robots, humans can explore areas of the ocean that have been too dangerous or difficult to access in the past. And demand for these robots is growing from strength to strength. The global underwater robotics market, for example, was valued at US$3.6 billion in 2020 and is forecast to reach US$6.74 billion by 2025.

So it’s no surprise that Australian company Reach Robotics has grown significantly since its founding in 2016. Previously named Blueprint Lab, the company was started by university friends Paul Phillips and Mark Sproule, who set out to revolutionise robotics for harsh environments by removing people from harm’s way and increasing the productivity of remote systems. Since then, the company has grown considerably to over 50 staff with a global sales and support footprint as well as a strong research and development capability.

With headquarters and manufacturing facility in Sydney, Australia, the company creates advanced robotic arms which enable complex inspection and intervention in maritime infrastructure management, military and police operations, marine science, and even space exploration. “The simplest way I can put it is that Reach Robotics develops robotic arms for harsh environments. So, when I say harsh environments, I'm talking about anywhere that it's dangerous for people to go,” explained Co-Founder Mark Sproule, who recently spoke with Maureen Murphy, a Professor of Practice in the School of Management and Governance at UNSW Business School and AGSM @ UNSW alumna.

“The first product line we developed was specialised for subsea industries, rated to 600 meters of sea pressure. But more and more, we're looking at other industries, so nuclear, land and more recently, space as well,” he said.

How do robots make jobs and people safer?

There is a growing understanding in science and the business world that robots can improve quality of life and work, not by replacing humans but by working effectively together. When robots replace humans in dangerous and difficult jobs, they are making the world safer for humans.

But how exactly do Reach Robotics’ robots work? “So robotic arms in our industry are also referred to as manipulators, and manipulators are made up of a series of actuators. Actuators are a series of mechanical gearboxes that make things move, they make things rotate, or they make things move up and down,” explained Mr Sproule. Reach Robotics first started out developing these actuators, which have become more sophisticated over time.

The Australian Defence Force, for example, uses Reach Robotics technology to defuse underwater explosives. “So, clearance divers would traditionally dive up to an object of interest, determine if it's dangerous, and then try and neutralise it or make it non-dangerous,” explained Mr Sproule.

“Our manipulators and the vehicles or the drones that they're attached to will essentially try and replicate what a diver can do, but in a way that's much safer for the individuals or the industries, including offshore infrastructure. So, these are traditionally oil and gas structures or, more recently, renewables,” he said.

Recruiting for creativity through value-based hiring 

Even in an industry full of robots, humans – and human creativity – is paramount. What is hiring like in a sector that develops and commercialises robots? What sort of people do hiring managers look for? It can be a challenge, according to Mr Sproule, who said most businesses are currently dealing with skills and talent shortages.

“We've tried bringing in experienced people from overseas, we've tried recruiting from other companies, we've tried university graduates. And I think what we've settled on is it's really about the individual. So how do you market yourself as a company to reach the widest amount of people possible? This is different to marketing your product. It's marketing your business for people to want to come,” he said.

And one solution has been engaging with universities. “We've been doing hackathons with different university groups, attending seminars, presenting to different universities. I think that has been extremely effective for us. Having people contact us rather than us having to, or them finding us on Seek or Indeed, for example,” he said.

Another important factor is organisational culture. With more than 50 employees, Mr Sproule said maintaining a culture that welcomes and is open to new ideas has become incredibly important. “People who come into the business quickly understand the broader culture… you must listen to people, and you should not rebut them until you have a good reason to do so or a good argument against it,” he said.

“This is particularly the case for engineers who are quite proud of the work they do, so criticism is sometimes confronting. Be confronted by it and develop and gather your thoughts before you say, ‘No’ I think it's been incredibly important to make sure ideas aren't dismissed immediately and listened to,” he said.

What are the next business opportunities in robotics?

Robotics is a growth industry, and Mr Sproule said there are a number of important business opportunities in the sector. “One of the inherent challenges of working with robotics is that they are different to humans. And so when you're talking about a robotic arm or a robotic leg, or a robotic dog, you can't control them the same way we control our body. That makes it challenging for operators to use robotics in a way that is as effective as humans, if not more.”

AI and machine learning play an important role in this and creating autonomy in robots. These technologies will increasingly allow people to create robots with the ability to form their own intelligence, learn from their environment and be able to do tasks, maybe not fully autonomously, but partially autonomously. “Assisting the control that humans have is something that we're certainly working on at the moment. Autonomy is certainly a big, big trend in robotics, and AI will play a big role in that,” said Mr Sproule.

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And if you have an idea, Mr Sproule suggests taking the leap. “Swallow and have the guts to do it. If you have an opportunity where you've got an idea, try, and take the leap. I would definitely recommend doing it with someone else. There's a huge advantage in sharing the mental load at different points in time with another person who understands what you're going through,” he said.

And if in doubt, test the market early. “Make sure that even if it's a great idea, everyone's telling you it's a great idea; really try and test that the market needs that idea,” he concluded.


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