Robots have been among us for decades, performing many tasks we sometimes take for granted. It’s how your car was made, your electronics assembled, your kitchen floors vacuumed… by robots. It doesn’t take a robotics technician to understand that, and you don’t have to take courses in robotics to appreciate the details (but it doesn’t hurt). Are these robots, saviors of humankind, or budding overlords of tungsten mines?
Hold On – What’s A Robot?
Very simple: it’s a machine designed to accomplish a task. How do we tell a robot what to do? Identify the task. Decide what are the fewest number of steps to get something done. How do we do that? We break the larger task down into smaller machine readable steps, “program logic”, it’s called.
Let’s go through the steps. For example, you want to pick up a coin:
- Aha, something shiny on the sidewalk!
- You use your eyes; the robot uses its sensors.
- You bend down and use your hands; the robot uses its effectors
- Your brain coordinates recognizing the coin and hand movement; the robot uses its control system.
If you want to learn more about this part of the process, take a PLC Programming course.
Onward to history! Robotics, with their many industrial and military applications got started in industry, specifically with the need to replace heavy, laborious and repetitive tasks with robotic arms. General Motors Unimate was introduced in 1961, bringing the idea of robotics into practice for the first time. The first generation of robots, however, were not particularly flexible, being stiff, unintelligent whumpers, thumpers, and bangers that bent, folded and welded steel sheets. Clunky hydraulics and programming difficulties meant something better was needed.
A New Chip off The Old Block
The first electrical industrial robot controlled by a microcomputer, the IRB6, was introduced in 1974. It has 16 KB of ram, easily programmable, and could display four whole digits with its LEDs. It polished steel tubes, not glamorous perhaps, but a major step in programming.
Robots with Vision
The second wave of robotics innovation came with their improved scanning ability. Crude black and white scanners had been around since the 1950s. To improve scanning, programmers with an electromechanical course under their belts, had to take lessons from Artificial Intelligence. Being AI students, they learned to program computers so they could react to a flow of objects and situations in real time; new algorithms allowing robots to recognize lights and shadows: the dawning of situational awareness. Finally, in 1981, again in a General Motors factory, robots got the gift of vision, putting the insights of AI to work in the form of robotic sensors. The name of the system was CONSIGHT and it was used to allow robots to pick out six different kinds of auto parts, as 1,400 parts per hour moved across the assembly line. Progress!
Baxter: From Programming to Training
Over the next two decades, robotic vision became sharper, their tasks more complex, and decision making ladder lengthened. More recently BAXTER, the new industrial android robot was introduced, no doubt a precursor of Star Trek’s Data.
BAXTER can help with research and perform general labour but it has to be told what to do. You have to program it once manually and it imitates. Robot see, robot do. It has some drawbacks though: it can’t walk, climb stairs or talk. Research continues.
Robots Become Human with Greater Mobility and Free-Will
Wabat1 is usually considered to be the first full-scale human robot, developed by the Japanese in 1973. It could walk, even talk but could only reply with pre-recorded responses, and its movements were excruciatingly slow, 45 seconds for one step. The consensus emerged that general human robotics had to be re-thought; multitasking was NOT a good idea. So, robotics turned to task specialization. That’s why current household robots focused on one specific task like: mowing the lawn, washing the windows, and cleaning the pool, just to name a few.
What are the latest developments?
- ASIMO can walk at, almost 6 kilometers an hour, climb up and down stairs, and push a cart.
- BEAR, military robot in development since 2005, on its tread legs it can go and pick up wounded soldiers.
- The Google self-driving car – it’s pretty much how it sounds. A car that drives itself, using Google satellite data and its own build in sensors to navigate. (everyone knows this one).
What does the future hold? Will robots boldly go where they have not gone before? Like going into hostile situations to rescue injured personnel, carrying them to safety and saving lives. Not quite Data (the android from Star Trek) yet but we’re getting there!