Robotics is the design, construction, and use of machines (robots) to perform tasks traditionally done by human beings. Although there is no consensus regarding the definition of the term robot, it is commonly defined as a mechanism that can sense its environment, process what it senses, and act upon its environment based on that processing. Robotics requires a working knowledge of electronics, mechanics, and software, and is usually accompanied by a large working knowledge of other subjects. The Robot Institute of America defines a robot as a programmable, multifunctional manipulator designed to move material, parts, tools, or specialized devices, through variable programmed motions, for the performance of a variety of tasks.
Karel Capek (1890–1938) made the first use of the word robot from the Czech word for forced labor or serf. He introduced the word robot into his play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots), which opened in Prague in January 1921. In R.U.R., Capek poses a paradise, where the machines initially bring so many benefits, but in the end bring an equal amount of blight in the form of unemployment and social unrest. The word robotics was first used in “Runaround,” a short story published in 1942 by Isaac Asimov (1920–92). I, Robot, a collection of several of these stories, was published in 1950. One of the first robots Asimov wrote about was a rob therapist.
Today, robots are widely used in industries such as automobile manufacturing to perform simple repetitive tasks and in industries where work must be performed in environments hazardous to humans. Many aspects of robotics involve artificial intelligence; robots may be equipped with the equivalent of human senses such as vision, touch, and the ability to sense temperature. These functions vary depending on the purpose and application of the robots. Robots are also used for military purposes, in medicine, and in education, among other applications.
The architecture of robots requires the involvement of different fields of technology; currently those fields include theory of robots, sensors and transducer technology, motors technology (steppers or DC servomotors), motor drive and control, control theory, power semiconductor drive, microelectronics, digital systems, microprocessors, computer systems, and computer interfacing.
Robots are usually classified by the actions or series of actions they can execute for a predetermined purpose; a general classification includes robots as manual-handling devices, fixed-sequence robots, variable sequence robots, playback robots, numerical control robots, and intelligent robots.
Robots offer specific benefits to workers, industries, and countries. If introduced correctly, industrial robots can improve the quality of life by freeing workers from dirty, monotonous, dangerous, and heavy labor. It is true that robots can cause unemployment by replacing human workers, but robots also create jobs such as robot technicians, salespeople, engineers, programmers, and supervisors.
The benefits of robots to industry include improved management control and productivity and consistently high-quality products. Industrial robots can work tirelessly night and day on an assembly line without a loss in performance. Consequently, they can greatly reduce the costs of manufactured goods. As a result of these industrial benefits, countries that effectively use robots in their industries will have an economic advantage on the world market.
Industrial robots have the following components: physical parts or anatomy, built-in instructions or instinct, and learned behavior or task programs. Their characteristics include lifting power (payload), reach (workspace), repeatability, reliability, manual/automatic control, memory, library of programs, safety interlocks, speed of operation, computer interface, and easy maintenance. Physical parts usually include a mechanical part or manipulator (such as body, arm, or wrist), an end effector (tool or gripper), actuators, controllers (sensors and processor), a power supply, and sometimes a vehicle.
The actuators are the muscles of a robot, the parts that convert stored energy into movement. The most popular actuators are motors, stepper motors (they do not spin freely like DC motors; they rotate in steps of a few degrees at a time, under the command of a controller), piezo motors (ultrasonic motors), air muscles (a device for providing a pulling force by inflating compressed air, it contracts by up to 40 percent of its original length), electro active polymers (plastics that change shape in response to electrical stimulation), and elastic nanotubes (filaments to deform elastically by several percent).
Robots require some way to manipulate objects: pick up, modify, destroy, or otherwise have an effect. Thus, the “hands” of a robot are often referred to as end effectors, while the arm is referred to as a manipulator. Some effectors-manipulators are grippers (two fingers that can open and close to pick up and let go of a range of small objects), vacuum grippers (pick and place robots for electronic components and for large objects), and general purpose effectors (highly sophisticated devices with as many as 20 degrees of freedom and hundreds of tactile sensors).
The most common forms of locomotion for robots are varieties of wheels. There are different configurations and means for locomotion, for example, two-wheeler balancing or a ballbot (mobile robot that balances on a ball instead of legs or wheels). There are also track robots, flying robots, swimming robots, and more.
A manipulator is constructed of a series of joints and links. A joint provides relative motion between the input link and the output link. Each joint provides the robot with one degree of freedom. Many robots are designed based on human anatomy. Some parts of the robot seek to duplicate human movement, while others add features to extend transportation capabilities: ground, air, water, underwater, space. There are several types of robot joints, and in most cases, robots use a combination of joint types rather than a single designed joint. Joints are characterized by the movement or function they intend to recreate, for example, linear, rotational, twisting, and revolving joints. The arm joints are used to position the end effector, while wrist joints are used to orient the end effector.
Robotic languages range from machine-level to high-level languages. High-level languages are either interpreter-based or compiler-based. In complex applications, high-level languages provide better control and monitoring of actions.
- Roman Espejo, What Is the Impact of Automation? (Greenhaven Press, 2008);
- Andrew McWilliams, Medical Robotics and Computer Assisted Surgery Market (Business Communications Co., 2003);
- Lisa Nocks, The Robot: The Life Story of a Technology (Greenwood Press, 2007);
- Jinsong Wang and Xin-Jun Liu, Parallel Robotics: Recent Advances in Research & Application (Nova Science Publishers, 2008).
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