Robotics: What Are Robots? Robotics Definition & Uses.
Robotics is an interdisciplinary sector of science and engineering dedicated to the design, construction and use of mechanical robots. Our guide will give you a concrete grasp of robotics, including different types of robots and how they’re being applied across industries.
What Is Robotics?
Robotics is the intersection of science, engineering and technology that produces machines, called robots, that replicate or substitute for human actions. Pop culture has always been fascinated with robots — examples include R2-D2, the Terminator and WALL-E. These over-exaggerated, humanoid concepts of robots usually seem like a caricature of the real thing. But are they more forward thinking than we realize? Robots are gaining intellectual and mechanical capabilities that don’t put the possibility of a R2-D2-like machine out of reach in the future.
What Is a Robot?
As technology progresses, so too does the scope of what is considered robotics. In 2005, 90 percent of all robots could be found assembling cars in automotive factories. These robots consist mainly of mechanical arms tasked with welding or screwing on certain parts of a car.
Today, we’re seeing an evolved and expanded definition of robotics that includes the development, creation and use of bots that accomplish tasks like exploring the planet’s harshest conditions, assisting law enforcement, streamlining surgical procedures and undertaking rescue missions.
While the overall world of robotics is expanding, a robot has some consistent characteristics:
- Robots consist of some sort of mechanical construction. The mechanical aspect of a robot helps it complete tasks in the environment for which it’s designed. For example, the Mars 2020 Rover’s wheels are individually motorized and made of titanium tubing that help it firmly grip the harsh terrain of the red planet.
- Robots need electrical components that control and power the machinery. Essentially, an electric current — a battery, for example — is needed to power a large majority of robots.
- Robots contain at least some level of computer programming. Without a set of code telling it what to do, a robot would just be another piece of simple machinery. Inserting a program into a robot gives it the ability to know when and how to carry out a task.
We’re bound to see the promise of the robotics industry sooner, rather than later, as artificial intelligence and software also continue to progress. In the near future, thanks to advances in these technologies, robots will continue getting smarter, more flexible and more energy efficient. They’ll also continue to be a main focal point in smart factories, where they’ll take on more difficult challenges and help to secure global supply chains.
The robotics industry is filled with an admirable promise of progress that science fiction could once only dream about. From the deepest depths of our oceans to thousands of miles in outer space, robots will be found performing tasks that humans couldn’t dream of achieving alone.
The word robot is derived from the Czech word robota, which means “forced labor.” The word first appeared in the 1920 play R.U.R., in reference to the play’s characters who were mass-produced workers incapable of creative thinking.
Types of Robotics
Mechanical bots come in all shapes and sizes to efficiently carry out the task for which they are designed. All robots vary in design, functionality and degree of autonomy. From the 0.2 millimeter-long “RoboBee” to the 200 meter-long robotic shipping vessel “Vindskip,” robots are emerging to carry out tasks that humans simply can’t.
There are five distinct types of robots that perform tasks depending on their capabilities. Below is an outline of these types and what they do.
Pre-programmed robots operate in a controlled environment where they do simple, monotonous tasks. An example of a pre-programmed robot would be a mechanical arm on an automotive assembly line. The arm serves one function — to weld a door on, to insert a certain part into the engine, etc. — and its job is to perform that task longer, faster and more efficiently than a human.
Humanoid robots are robots that look like or mimic human behavior. These robots usually perform human-like activities (like running, jumping and carrying objects), and are sometimes designed to look like us, even having human faces and expressions. Two of the most prominent examples of humanoid robots are Hanson Robotics’ Sophia and Boston Dynamics’ Atlas.
Autonomous robots operate independently of human operators. These robots are usually designed to carry out tasks in open environments that do not require human supervision. They are quite unique because they use sensors to perceive the world around them, and then employ decision-making structures (usually a computer) to take the optimal next step based on their data and mission. One example of an autonomous robot is the Roomba vacuum cleaner, which uses sensors to roam freely throughout a home.
Examples of Autonomous Robots
- Cleaning Bots (for example, Roomba)
- Lawn Trimming Bots
- Hospitality Bots
- Autonomous Drones
- Medical Assistant Bots
Teleoperated robots are semi-autonomous bots that use a wireless network to enable human control from a safe distance. These robots usually work in extreme geographical conditions, weather and circumstances. Examples of teleoperated robots are the human-controlled submarines used to fix underwater pipe leaks during the BP oil spill or drones used to detect landmines on a battlefield.
Augmenting robots, also known as VR robots, either enhance current human capabilities or replace the capabilities a human may have lost. The field of robotics for human augmentation is a field where science fiction could become reality very soon, with bots that have the ability to redefine the definition of humanity by making humans faster and stronger. Some examples of current augmenting robots are robotic prosthetic limbs or exoskeletons used to lift hefty weights.
What Is a Bot? What Is Software Robotics?
Software robotics, also called bots, are computer programs which carry out tasks autonomously. One common use case of software robots is a chatbot. A chatbot is a computer program that simulates conversation both online and over the phone and is often used in customer service scenarios. Chatbots can either be simple services that answer questions with an automated response or more complex digital assistants that learn from user information.
Types of Bots
- Chatbots: carry out simple conversations, often in a customer service setting.
- Spam Bots: collect email addresses and send spam mail.
- Download Bots: download software and apps automatically.
- Search Engine Crawler Bots: scan websites and make them visible on search engines.
- Monitoring Bots: report on website speed and status.
Software robots only exist on the internet and originate within a computer, which means they are not considered robots. In order to be considered a robot, a device must have a physical form, such as a body or a chassis.
How Do Robots Function?
Independent robots are capable of functioning completely autonomously and independent of human operator control. These typically require more intense programming but allow robots to take the place of humans when undertaking dangerous, mundane or otherwise impossible tasks, from bomb diffusion and deep-sea travel to factory automation. Independent robots have proven to be the most disruptive to society, as they eliminate certain jobs but also present new possibilities for growth.
Dependent robots are non-autonomous robots that interact with humans to enhance and supplement their already existing actions. This is a relatively new form of technology and is being constantly expanded into new applications, but one form of dependent robots that has been realized is advanced prosthetics that are controlled by the human mind.
A famous example of a dependent robot was created by Johns Hopkins APL in 2018 for Johnny Matheny, a patient whose arm was amputated above the elbow. Matheny was fitted with a modular prosthetic limb so researchers could study its use over a sustained period. The MPL is controlled via electromyography, or signals sent from his amputated limb that controls the prosthesis. Over time, Matheny became more efficient in controlling the MPL and the signals sent from his amputated limb became smaller and less variable, leading to more accuracy in its movements and allowing Matheny to perform tasks as delicate as playing the piano.
What Are the Main Components of a Robot?
Robots are built to present solutions to a variety of needs and fulfill several different purposes, and therefore, require a variety of specialized components to complete these tasks.
What are the main components of a robot?
- Control System: the CPU that directs a robot’s task at high level.
- Sensors: a component that provides electrical signals to allow a robot to interact with the world.
- Actuators: the motor parts that are responsible for a robot’s movement.
- Power Supply: the battery that supplies power to a robot.
- End Effectors: the exterior features of a robot that allow it to complete a task.
However, there are several components that are central to every robot’s construction, like a power source or a central processing unit. Generally speaking, robotics components fall into these five categories:
Computation includes all of the components that make up a robot’s central processing unit, often referred to as its control system. Control systems are programmed to tell a robot how to utilize its specific components, similar in some ways to how the human brain sends signals throughout the body, in order to complete a specific task. These robotic tasks could comprise anything from minimally invasive surgery to assembly line packing.
Sensors provide a robot with stimuli in the form of electrical signals that are processed by the controller and allow the robot to interact with the outside world. Common sensors found within robots include video cameras that function as eyes, photoresistors that react to light and microphones that operate like ears. These sensors allow the robot to capture its surroundings and process the most logical conclusion based on the current moment and allows the controller to relay commands to the additional components.
A device can only be considered to be a robot if it has a movable frame or body. Actuators are the components that are responsible for this movement. These components are made up of motors that receive signals from the control system and move in tandem to carry out the movement necessary to complete the assigned task. Actuators can be made of a variety of materials, such as metal or elastic, and are commonly operated by use of compressed air (pneumatic actuators) or oil (hydraulic actuators) but come in a variety of formats to best fulfill their specialized roles.
Like the human body requires food in order to function, robots require power. Stationary robots, such as those found in a factory, may run on AC power through a wall outlet but more commonly, robots operate via an internal battery. Most robots utilize lead-acid batteries for their safe qualities and long shelf life while others may utilize the more compact but also more expensive silver-cadmium variety. Safety, weight, replaceability and lifecycle are all important factors to consider when designing a robot’s power supply.
Some potential power sources for future robotic development also include pneumatic power from compressed gasses, solar power, hydraulic power, flywheel energy storage organic garbage through anaerobic digestion and nuclear power.
End effectors are the physical, typically external components that allow robots to finish carrying out their tasks. Robots in factories often have interchangeable tools like paint sprayers and drills, surgical robots may be equipped with scalpels and other kinds of robots can be built with gripping claws or even hands for tasks like deliveries, packing, bomb diffusion and much more.
Uses of Robots
Robots have a wide variety of use cases that make them the ideal technology for the future. Soon, we will see robots almost everywhere. We’ll see them in hospitals, hotels and even on roads.
Applications of Robotics
- Conservation: fighting forest fires.
- Manufacturing: working in factories, finding and carrying items in warehouses.
- Companionship: providing company to elderly individuals.
- Healthcare: assisting in surgical procedures.
- Delivery: completing food delivery and last-mile fulfillment.
- Household: vacuuming and mowing the grass.
- Rescue: undertaking search-and-rescue missions after natural disasters.
- Military Operations: detecting landmines in war zones.
Robotics in Manufacturing
The manufacturing industry is probably the oldest and most well-known user of robots. These robots and co-bots (bots that work alongside humans) work to efficiently test and assemble products, like cars and industrial equipment. It’s estimated that there are more than three million industrial robots in use right now.
Shipping, handling and quality control robots are becoming a must-have for most retailers and logistics companies. Because we now expect our packages to arrive at blazing speeds, logistics companies employ robots in warehouses, and even on the road, to help maximize time efficiency. Right now, there are robots taking your items off the shelves, transporting them across the warehouse floor and packaging them. Additionally, a rise in last-mile robots (robots that will autonomously deliver your package to your door) ensure that you’ll have a face-to-metal-face encounter with a logistics bot in the near future.
Robots for Home
It’s not science fiction anymore. Robots can be seen all over our homes, helping with chores, reminding us of our schedules and even entertaining our kids. The most well-known example of home robots is the autonomous vacuum cleaner Roomba. Additionally, robots have now evolved to do everything from autonomously mowing grass to cleaning pools.
Is there anything more science fiction-like than autonomous vehicles? These self-driving cars are no longer just imagination. A combination of data science and robotics, self-driving vehicles are taking the world by storm. Companies like Tesla, Ford, Waymo, Volkswagen and BMW are all working on the next wave of travel that will let us sit back, relax and enjoy the ride. Rideshare companies Uber and Lyft are also developing autonomous rideshare vehicles that don’t require humans to operate the vehicle.
Robots have made enormous strides in the healthcare industry. These mechanical marvels have use in just about every aspect of healthcare, from robot-assisted surgeries to bots that help humans recover from injury in physical therapy. Examples of robots at work in healthcare are Toyota’s healthcare assistants, which help people regain the ability to walk, and TUG, a robot designed to autonomously stroll throughout a hospital and deliver everything from medicines to clean linens.
Robots have been employed by pharmaceutical companies to help the fight against COVID-19. These bots are now being used to fill and seal COVID-19 testing swabs, and are also being used by some manufacturers to produce PPE and respirators.
History of Robotics
People have been pondering robots since ancient civilizations incorporated myths and beliefs of “thinking machines” into their societies and invented the water clock. Robotics has drastically changed since the time of the Greeks, Romans and Egyptians, but its history is vast. Here’s a look at some of the most important events that shaped the history of robotics.
- (1737) Jacques de Vaucanson builds the first biomechanical automaton on record. Called the Flute Player, the mechanical device plays 12 songs.
- (1920) The word “robot” makes its first appearance in Karel Capek’s play R.U.R. Robot is derived from the Czech word “robota,” which means “forced labor.”
- (1926) The first movie robot appears in Metropolis.
- (1936) Alan Turing publishes “On Computable Numbers,” a paper that introduces the concept of a theoretical computer called the Turing Machine.
- (1948) Cybernetics or Control and Communication in the Animal is published by MIT professor Norbert Wiener. The book speaks on the concept of communications and control in electronic, mechanical and biological systems.
- (1949) William Grey Walter, a neurophysiologist and inventor, introduces Elmer and Elsie, a pair of battery-operated robots that look like tortoises. The robots move objects, find a source of light and find their way back to a charging station.
- (1950) Isaac Asimov publishes the Three Laws of Robotics.
- (1950) Alan Turing publishes the paper “Computing Machinery and Intelligence,” proposing what is now known as the Turing Test, a method for determining if a machine is intelligent.
- (1961) The first robotic arm works in a General Motors facility. The arm lifts and stacks metal parts and follows a program for approximately 200 movements. The arm was created by George Devol and his partner Joseph Engelberger.
- (1969) Victor Scheinman invents the Stanford Arm, a robotic arm with six joints that can mimic the movements of a human arm. It is one of the first robots designed to be controlled by a computer.
- (1972) A group of engineers at the Stanford Research Institute create Shakey, the first robot to use artificial intelligence. Shakey completes tasks by observing its environment and forming a plan.The robot uses sensors, a range-finder and touch-sensitive apparatus to plan its moves.
- (1978) Hiroshi Makino, an automation researcher, designs a four-axis SCARA robotic arm. Known as the first “pick and place” robot, the arm is programmed to pick an object up, turn and place it in another location.
- (1985) The first documented use of a robot-assisted surgical procedure uses the PUMA 560 robotic surgical arm.
- (1985) William Whittaker builds two remotely-operated robots that are sent to the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant. The robots work in the damaged reactor building’s basement to survey the site, send back information and drill core samples to measure radiation levels.
- (1989) MIT researchers Rodney Brooks and A. M. Flynn publish Fast, Cheap and Out of Control: A Robot Invasion of the Solar System. The paper argues for building many small, cheap robots rather than few big, expensive ones.
- (1990) A group of researchers from MIT found iRobot, the company behind the Roomba vacuum cleaner.
- (1992) Marc Raibert, another MIT researcher, founds robotics company Boston Dynamics.
- (1997) Sojourner lands on Mars. The free-ranging rover sends 2.3 billion bits of data back to Earth, including more than 17,000 images, 15 chemical analyses of rocks and soil and extensive data on Mars’ weather.
- (1998) Furby, a robotic toy pet developed by Tiger Electronics, is released and eventually sells tens of millions of units. Furbys are preprogrammed to speak gibberish and learn other languages over time.
- (1999) Aibo, a robotic puppy powered by AI hits the commercial market. Developed by Sony, the robotic dog reacts to sounds and has some pre-programmed behavior.
- (2000) Cynthia Breazeal creates a robotic head programmed to provoke emotions as well as react to them. Called Kismet, the robot consists of 21 motors, audio sensors and algorithms to understand vocal tone.
- (2000) Sony unveils the humanoid Sony Dream Robot, a bipedal humanoid entertainment robot it developed and marketed but never sold.
- (2001) iRobot’s PackBot searches the World Trade Center site after September 11th.
- (2002) iRobot creates Roomba. The vacuum robot is the first robot to become popular in the commercial sector amongst the public.
- (2003) Mick Mountz and the cofounders of Amazon Robotics (formerly Kiva Systems) invent the Kiva robot. The robot maneuvers around warehouses and moves goods.
- (2004) Boston Dynamics unveils BigDog, a quadruped robot controlled by humans. The robot is known for being more nimble than previous iterations of robots, as it is capable of only having two feet on the ground at a time. It has 50 sensors and an onboard computer that manages the gait and keeps it stable.
- (2004) The Defense Department’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency establishes the DARPA Grand Challenge. A self-driving car race that aims to inspire innovation in military autonomous vehicle tech.
- (2005) A Volkswagen Touareg named Stanley wins the second DARPA Grand Challenge. The car uses AI trained on the driving habits of real-world humans and five lidar laser sensors to complete a 131.2-mile course in the Mojave Desert.
- (2011) NASA and General Motors collaborate to send Robonaut 2, a humanesque robotic assistant, into space on space shuttle Discovery. The robot becomes a permanent resident of the International Space Station.
- (2013) Boston Dynamics releases Atlas, a humanoid biped robot that uses 28 hydraulic joints to mimic human movements — including performing a backflip.
- (2012) The first license for a self-driven car is issued in Nevada. The car is a Toyota Prius modified with technology developed by Google.
- (2014) Canadian researchers develop hitchBOT, a bot that hitchhikes across Canada and Europe as part of a social experiment.
- (2016) Sophia, a humanoid robot dubbed the first robot citizen, is created by Hanson Robotics. The robot is capable of facial recognition, verbal communication and facial expression.
- (2020) Robots are used to distribute COVID-19 tests and vaccinations.
- (2020) 384,000 industrial robots are shipped across the globe to perform various manufacturing and warehouse jobs.
- (2021) Cruise, an autonomous car company, conducts its first two robotaxi test rides in San Francisco.