Let’s begin with a quick clarification. As they often are nowadays, the title of this article is a stretch of the truth. This is not a guide for first-timers but a guide by a first-timer. I have been in the robotics game for just over a decade, and ICRA (International Conference on Robotics and Automation) is the first major academic conference I have attended. Let me say this, it was one of the best events that I have ever been to.
I will break this guide into 4 main sections:
- The exhibition hall
- The keynote sessions
- The people you meet
- All the rest
The exhibition hall
If you download the conference proceedings and search hard, you will find a floor plan.
So the obvious thing you might be thinking is that you are going to visit the conference with some semblance of order. Maybe you even draw out a plan to walk through it to visit all of the stands.
But then, as you are walking the floor, you will see robots. Robots, you can drive, robots you can pilot, robots you can walk. You can touch them, talk to the people that build them, people like you, that are passionate beyond belief about robots. I immediately ran around visiting robots like this:
After that, your walking path through the venue may look more like this:
It is chaotic, and fast-moving, and by the time you know it, it is closing time, and security is begging you to leave the venue. But that’s ok, it is enjoyable, and you will gain invaluable insight from the displays into the current scene of research robotics. For example, to my surprise, in 2023, there were a significant number of companies offering:
- Robotic hands and hand-like manipulators
- Telepresence robots
- Robot quadrupeds
Talking to a variety of people at the conference, only a few years ago, SPOT, the quadruped from Boston Dynamics, was a remarkable entry into the robotics scene. At this ICRA, it still is an incredible robot but was joined by several companies offering similar products. So much so that in a larger area of the display floor, an impromptu “dog park” formed:
This amazing collaborative display grew, and although I was not able to see it on the 4th day, it included almost every mobile robot at the event.
My advice here is to relax and go where your interest takes you. You will not be able to see every booth and talk to every attendee in the time you have. You will undoubtedly see some incredibly cool things, if not all of them, but certainly most of them. So enjoy it!
The keynote sessions
While in the exhibition hall, you are going to lose track of time. There will not be clocks, alarms, or chimes to remind you that so much more is going on. Make sure you look into and list some of the keynote sessions you want to attend. At ICRA 2023, there were some phenomenal speakers. One of my favourites was Hugh Herr. Hugh co-directs the K. Lisa Yang Center for Bionics at MIT and presented one of the most motivating stories for the technical advancement of robotics that I have ever heard. I am going to heavily paraphrase here, so if you want a detailed history, give Hugh a quick Google. Hugh lost both legs after frostbite in a climbing incident, and after doctors told him he will never climb again, he quickly ended up back on the cliff face.
He took up a much more academic career in engineering and eventually a PhD in biophysics. Hugh was passionate about improving the lives of people with missing limbs and talked through some remarkable things his lab was working on. He presented his clear vision of the future of prosthetics, controlled fully by muscular movements and which allow for touch and feel. After the talk, not only did he make the steps to this vision clear, but they also seemed incredibly achievable.
He was an inspirational speaker, who showed the possibility of what robotics could do for people and how with incredible motivation, we can achieve it.
The people you meet
Be prepared to talk with passionate people about robotics for several days straight. You will talk about it when you arrive and have coffee, you will talk about it throughout the day, and you will meet and dine with people who you will talk about it with as well. During the event, I met with people from BitCraze for dinner and a drink. We spent plenty of time talking about the Crazyflie drone, their research platform. With next to no compute power, their drones localise themselves and each other and navigate without collisions to and from their wireless charging pads.
We talked with Tangram Vision over dinner and learned about what it takes to do sensor calibrations as a service.
Ok, so you do deviate from robotics sometimes, we spent some time discussing the rating of chicken burgers on Git Hub, which is just one fun thing we find out about the people we meet.
The robotics scene is small, so inevitably you will bump into people you know as well. Across the planet, I ran into my undergraduate thesis supervisor from CSIRO in Australia.
A word of advice, if you intend to meet someone in the exhibition hall, pick a specific time and a big display to meet under. I met with Nicole Robinson, the CEO of LYRO Robotics, a very interesting startup aiming to reduce food waste through robotics. I didn’t set an actual place to meet, so we spent half an hour walking around trying to find each other, which we had a good laugh about. Nicole represents an exciting trend that is emerging in Australia, new robotics start-ups! Hardware, specifically robotics startups, are heavily concentrated in the US, especially silicon valley. But at ICRA, it was incredible to meet people running start-ups all over the world. I hope that roboticists spinning up their dream companies will make for exciting workplaces within reach for engineers everywhere.
Get excited and try to embrace your inner social butterfly. Just remember that everyone is as nerdy as you and will be equally excited to discuss all things robotics.
All the rest
I wanted to add some final things I learned about the extra activities at the conference.
If you attend panel talks or paper talks (not keynote talks), leave time to find the room they are in. Conference venues are massive, and you may get caught out if you don’t leave enough time to find and walk to the room. As an additional note, check the ICRA website carefully, some talks require you to register to control the space used, and if you don’t do so, you may miss out.
The posters are super interesting, and there are a lot of them. At ICRA 2023, there were 1341 papers and 314 papers presented orally. You will only be able to visit some of them. You probably won’t digest even 1% of them. So try to listen as you walk around and talk to the most excited-sounding presenters, they will likely give you the most engaging content.
Make sure you stop by the student competitions. Every year, students have access to more and more technology and are doing incredibly inventive things with it. As you walk into the room, you simultaneously view little cars autonomously zipping around a race track, quadrupeds scrambling over uneven terrain, and wheeled manipulators collecting toast for people in a mock living room. Things have come such a long way since my uni days!
Most of all, have fun, this is an incredible event.
To Mateusz Sadowski and Roland Meertens who both guided me through my first ICRA. It was an invaluable experience and I can’t thank you both enough.
About the author
Ben Dart is a senior software engineer and roboticist with more than a decade of experience in both. Ben is passionate about software and wants to start using his skills to reduce emissions and increase safety of work across a wide variety of industries.