Knowledge Base

Introduction to Robots and Robotics

To those who are movie buffs, the word ‘robot’ connotes images of a humanoid kind of object. In all probability, this robot is either the result of a malfunction, the invention of an evil genius, or deployed by aliens who want to capture the earth. In short, most people think of a robot as something with human features. While applicable to most Sci-Fi movies, it is not exactly a correct definition of what a robot is.

So, what exactly is a robot?
 According to the Robotics Institute of America, a robot is a reprogrammable and multifunctional manipulator, devised for the transport of materials, parts, tools or specialized systems, with varied and programmed movements, with the aim of carrying out varied tasks. According to Webster dictionary, a robot is an automatic apparatus or device that performs functions ordinarily ascribed to humans or operates with what appears to be almost human intelligence.  

The word ‘robot’ traces its roots to the Czech word robotnik. The term was first used by the Czech playwright Karel Capek in a play he wrote in 1920. The word became popular immediately, and has come to signify artificial-intelligence machines invented by humans to perform different tasks. Likewise, the term ‘robotics’ was first introduced by the great science fiction author Isaac Asimov in the now legendary ‘I, Robot’ series of books. Today, the term has been accepted to mean the study of robots as a discipline. Most of the colleges that offer a degree in the specialisation of robots in India, Singapore and elsewhere as a discipline call their course ‘Robotics Engineering’. However, it must be noted that the term ‘robotics’ is very fluid. As an engineering discipline, robotics merges into the domain of mechanical engineering, computer programming, electronics, automation, mechatronics and artificial intelligence. Secondly, the concept of what constitutes a robot is changing rapidly. Robotics technology is evolving, and what was awe inspiring a few decades back, can seem mundane today. An apt analogy is the mobile phone. When they were introduced in India, Singapore and other countries in the 1990s, mobiles were bulky and displayed only text in black and white. Multimedia was conspicuous by its absence. Apart from calling and receiving, all they could do was send text messages. And all they had was a keypad for typing. Compared to today’s smartphones that incorporate sophisticated AI (siri) cameras, have touch-screen, can screen movies in HD and send and receive multimedia messages, they were simply clumsy, bulky and had extremely limited functionality. Same is the case with robotics. The robots of yore were bulky, clumsy and had extremely limited movement, and are considered very primitive today. Likewise, what constitutes robots today can be easily obsolete a scant 10 years down the line. Today, anything from a child’s toy to an autopilot system is deemed a robot if it can take some decisions based on stimulus. Maybe 10 years down the robots will mean devices that are capable of emulating human actions and behaviour, and the toy robot will be just called an ‘automated toy.’  But all said and done, at the heart (not literally!) the robot is a computer-controlled device that combines the technology of computers with the technology of servo-control of articulated chains. Another aspect a robot must incorporate is that it should be easily reprogrammable to perform different types of tasks, and must have sensors that enable it to react and adapt to changing conditions. With these fundamentals in mind, we can think of a robot as something that is able to gather data, make intelligent decisions based on this data, and then act upon it. This definition of a robot should stand the test of time.  

The Essential Components of a Robot
Robots take a bewildering variety of forms – it can have arms of all shapes, it can be in the form of a vehicle with all possible arrangements of wheels or legs, and devices which although clearly robotic are neither vehicles nor arms. Yet some other robots may simply slither, just like snakes. 

So, just what does a typical robot comprise of? To reiterate, all robots perform some type of mechanical action based on the data it receives, have electrical components that control and power the machinery, and incorporate at least some computer code that tells it what to do. A typical robot includes:

The most popular choice for a robot ‘brain’ is the microcontroller chip. Such a chip is similar to a microprocessor found in computers; it differs in that it is almost like an entire tiny computer merged into a single piece. Microcontrollers have small amounts of memory and storage space built directly into the chip; and a diverse variety of input and output pins. These pins can connect directly to sensors, buttons, and even other devices.

Do all robots need a ‘brain’? Well, not really. A radio frequency controlled robotic vessel is an example of a robot without a microcontroller.

All robots requires some sort of power to make it move, essentially converting electrical energy into kinetic energy. The electrical power supply in a robot typically consists of a raw power source, a regulating circuit to stabilize and process the source, and a switch to activate and deactivate. In addition, most robots have a small portion of their bodies dedicated to keeping a steady, specific level of power available to all of the electronics called as the power regulator. 

Robots need sensors to provide them with the required data to execute any operation correctly. These sensors measure some parameters and convert it into a useable signal for your robot. Robots perform actions coordinated with the processing of sensor information. Most often the action is in the form of movement. However, sounds, displays, indicator lights, and other forms of feedback are also actions. Different types of robots require different sensors depending upon the task they are expected to execute; we will cover them in a separate article. 

Robot Body
The robot body is nothing but a skeleton, frame or chassis used to mount all the different robot parts. Apart from allowing the robot to function properly, the robot body also protects the different parts of the robot.

Miscellaneous Robot Parts
Apart from the aforementioned parts, robots also include on / off switches, support chips, motor controllers to provide initial impetus to the motor, relay boards, power supply modules, etc.

Where are Robots used?
The interest in robotics has been on the rise because of the practical value it provides. Due to their very nature, robots are used for tasks that are repetitive, require a high degree of precision, and for tasks where it is unsafe for humans to work. The most important use of robots is in industrial applications, as it increases productivity, improves product quality, lowers wastage due to precision, reduces manufacturing lead times, and is a boon for work in hazardous environment.  Industry 4.0 involves complete automation, connectivity and automatic decision making, and robots, coupled with artificial intelligence (AI) play a very crucial role in this revolution. Robots are also used in medicine for intricate surgeries and intelligent monitoring of patient health. They also have begun to play an important role in education.  For example, Rosetta Stone, a language learning software, uses AI propelled augmented reality to accelerate the language learning process.

As IoT, IIoT and Industry 4.0 are adopted worldwide, the utility of robots is going increase. The plants of future – be it in Singapore, India or other countries - will incorporate automation on a large scale, and robots are poised to play a stellar role in this transition.