Types of Robots and How They’re Used

These programmable machines differ in specialty within a broad range of applications. 

Written by Brooke Becher
Published on Feb. 21, 2024
Types of Robots and How They’re Used
Image: Shutterstock

Robots come in all shapes, sizes and capabilities. Today, they perform surgical procedures in operating rooms, backflip through obstacle courses, rove through outer space and venture down the uncanny valley. And with artificial intelligence and machine learning in the mix, robots are only becoming more sophisticated.

What Is a Robot?

A robot is a programmable machine that can perform a task with minimal human intervention. Typically, they’re designed to carry out repetitive or dangerous jobs with speed and precision to substitute human effort. 

As these programmable systems find new ways to automate everyday tasks and jobs across various industries, they change society as a whole. Below are several different types of robots that are challenging what was previously thought possible of computerized machines.

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Types of Robots

Humanoid Robots

Humanoid robots are machines built to resemble humans in both form and function. Engineers use actuators to replicate muscle-joint movement, a variety of sensors — complete with computer vision and haptic feedback — that allow them to perceive their surroundings and artificial intelligence algorithms, including speech recognition and machine learning, that allow them to autonomously interpret and interact with the world around them. While most models are still in the prototype phase, humanoids are primarily being developed for research and professional services purposes.

 

Industrial Robots

Industrial robots are heavy-duty machines that automate manufacturing processes at scale. These sizable apparatuses — consisting of at least one programmable arm-like manipulator — perform at a consistent, rapid pace with precision from a fixed position, and are capable of movement on three or more axes. Found in warehouses and factories, industrial robots are often built into assembly lines to handle materials, weld, palletize, inspect and test products. Today there are over 3 million industrial robots in the world.

 

Social Robots

Social robots are AI-powered companions built for human interaction. These robo-buddies mimic human-like behaviors and expressions when engaging with a user in order to demonstrate understanding. They rely on sensors, cameras, microphones and computer vision to take in social cues linked to touch, sound and sight. Social robots are commonly used to support early childhood development — especially within the context of autism therapy and social-emotional learning — and keep the company of aging-in-place seniors or astronauts in space.

 

Medical Robots

Medical robots refer to devices and systems that help healthcare professionals treat medical conditions and streamline hospital workflows. Often equipped with sensors, imaging technology and telemanipulators, these high-precision machines aim to improve patient outcomes and reduce human error, offering a full-cycle of applications from diagnosis and patient care to surgery and rehabilitation. Surgical robots, for example, enable dexterity beyond human capabilities as well as minimally invasive approaches, while robotic prosthetics restore function by sending brainwave transmissions to an artificial limb.

 

Service Robots

Service robots are built to serve humans in either personal or professional settings. Typically, these robots take on dull, dirty, repetitive or dangerous chores, and are deployed in non-industrial environments to create efficiency in everyday tasks. Service robots may take on household labor, assist seniors to live independently, check-in hotel guests or craft burgers and pies in a restaurant kitchen.

 

Cobots

Cobots are machines designed to work alongside humans in a shared workspace. A portmanteau of ‘collaborative’ and ‘robot,’ cobots are equipped with sensor-enhanced safety features that allow them to perform tasks within proximity to humans without the need for physical barriers. This way, cobots boost productivity by automating menial, repetitive and physically demanding tasks, freeing up their human coworkers to focus on more high-value aspects of a job.

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Space Robots

Space robots are unmanned aircrafts that are launched beyond Earth’s atmosphere for the purpose of space exploration. Rovers, landers and orbiters gather information by performing tasks in outer space, such as capturing photos, collecting samples or conducting experiments. This real-time data is then reported back to Earth-based mission control centers or a local manned spacecraft. Space robots may be autonomous, semi-autonomous or remote controlled. They offer a safer alternative to human-led missions at a fraction of the cost.

 

Educational Robots

Educational robots are robotic teaching aids designed to enhance learning experiences in educational settings. As a tangible platform for experimentation, they create more engaging classrooms with hands-on activities and interactive lessons. From virtual reality headset systems to simulators and droids, these highly programmable machines typically feature user-friendly interfaces inclusive to younger audiences. Some humanoid models serve as teaching assistants, personal tutors, small group leaders and classroom peers, and are equipped with emotion-perceiving sensors to assist students in their social skill development.

 

Rescue Robots

Rescue robots are mechanical aids to response teams that assist in search and rescue operations. They are built to fly, swim, crawl through earthquake rubble and extinguish fires. But most importantly, they can navigate areas that may be considered too dangerous for humans. These machines use sensors to assess hazardous terrain, GPS to map and search large areas, cameras and microphones to locate trapped victims as well as vertical take-off landing capabilities and grippers to deliver food and medical supplies.

 

Agricultural Robots

Agricultural robots, or agribots, are a type of field robots that automate repetitive, labor-intensive tasks within agriculture. Whether working with farm livestock, aquaculture fisheries or managing forests, these high-tech farming machines provide a data-driven approach to industry-wide practices — such as harvesting, irrigation, seeding and environmental monitoring — depending on their function. While food demands rise and labor shortages widen, agribots are creating ways to cut costs, conserve resources, reduce chemical use and increase yields.

 

Exoskeletons

Exoskeletons are wearable devices that are designed to work in tandem with a user to augment mobility. These mechanical, motor-assisted scaffolds provide ergonomic support while preventing injury. Robotic prosthetic devices can assist in heavy lifting, extended squatting and transporting loads for industrial and defense applications, or help a patient’s physical rehabilitation as seen in healthcare centers.

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Aquatic Robots

Aquatic robots perform tasks in marine environments. Whether gliding along the ocean’s surface or diving underwater, these un-crewed vehicles operate in two different modalities — autonomously, remotely or a hybrid of the two — and are primarily used in ocean exploration. They’re often equipped with sensors, propulsion systems and arm-like manipulators, which help them study marine wildlife and habitats as well as maintain underwater structures, like pipelines and offshore platforms.

 

Nanorobots

Nanorobots are tiny machines designed to operate at the nanoscale. These robots are built one individual atom at a time from organic and artificial materials, ranging from DNA molecules and peptides to silicone and graphene. Typically, they range in size from 50 to 100 nanometers — where one nanometer is equal to one billionth of a meter — and have the potential to provide targeted drug delivery in medicine and remediate pollutants during environmental cleanup.

 

Military Robots

Military robots are unmanned robotic systems deployed for military applications. Equipped with sensors, weapons and communication systems, these autonomous or remote-controlled machines have become essential to modern warfare as they deliver targeted attacks and enhance intelligence capabilities — from reconnaissance and surveillance to logistics support — while reducing risk to human soldiers. Drones, tanks, minefield-clearing bots, mechanical guard dogs and automated snipers are a few examples of military robots in development.

 

Frequently Asked Questions

A robot is a programmable machine capable of performing a task with minimal human intervention. They’re designed to carry out repetitive, labor-intensive or dangerous jobs with speed and precision to replace human effort.

Industrial robots, cobots, service robots and humanoids are some of the most common types of robots in development.

Any robot that is remote controlled or semi-autonomous is controlled by a human operator, while autonomous robots are programmed to deal with their environment on their own.

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