Research and products in the field of robotics have come a long way since its early days. Today we have faster robots, more energy-efficient robots, smarter robots and as is with any technology, more capable robots in general. So intelligent that we, the people that created such technology have increasingly found ourselves living in a bizarre reality. A reality where the perception of robots replacing humans due to their cost-effective and efficient nature in most spheres of employment is an eventuality rather than a far-fetched possibility. So what is this potentially human-replacing technology? What is robotics? Let us take a brief dive into the foundations of a technology that today, drives about 90% of manufacturing potential of the entire world.
What is Robotics?
Robotics is the study of robots. Robots can perform various types of jobs. Depending on how smart they are, some robots can do work by themselves while others must always have a person telling them what to do. It is a field of research where multiple well-established areas of research and engineering converge to create machines whose primary task is to replicate work that a human does. These fields of R&E include computer, electronics, electrical, mechanical, chemical, material science, and many more.
Pop culture is filled with them, but not without good reason. The sheer number of scenarios in which such technology can either be extremely beneficial or catastrophically destructive for humankind is perhaps, as exciting as it is terrifying. We have all seen and grown to love the benign futuristic robots, such as R2-D2, Bumblebee and Optimus Prime and WALL-E. On the other hand, their destructive potential is portrayed, through Skynet and the Terminators and HAL 9000 from 2001 Space Odyssey. Both philosophies in fiction are closer to being a reality than many of us might imagine.
The general form of a robot
- All robots, in general, tend to have a physical shape or form built using a combination of mechanical components, such as motors, actuators, hydraulic cylinders, pistons, joints, tubing, etc. They are designed and selected, keeping in mind the environment in which they are to operate or interact eventually.
- A very well known example of this is the 2020 Mars Rover developed by NASA. It incorporates specially built wheels with titanium tubing, and the capability to intentionally deform itself to reduce impact damage from the rocky martian terrain while retaining the ability to return to its original dimensions fully post traversing said obstacle.
- A modern robot can run programs or subroutines, usually on an ASIC (Application Specific Integrated Circuit), which help it make decisions or allow it to interact in a meaningful/intended way with its environment. For incorporating said capability, a robot must also have a microprocessor(s) and accompanying electronics, such as memory, sensors, scanners, etc., which forms the hardware required to achieve said objectives.
- All of the components mentioned above require some form of an electric power source to run. Electrical engineers provide the solution through increasingly complex power distribution circuits, power sources, such as Li-ion batteries, and so on. These components work in unison to ensure the power limits remain in check for every element in the robot, while meeting strict power or heat targets, as well as packing suitably deep power storage necessary for the robot to achieve its intended objectives eventually.
- All of this power flowing, especially in bigger robots, through microprocessors, wires, solenoids, metal cores, etc., generate a significant amount of waste heat. If this heat is allowed to linger, it negatively impacts the performance of the robot and decreases its overall lifespan. Thus through mechanical engineering, we devise cooling solutions that take this waste heat away from the sensitive components and dumps it in the atmosphere.
The result of all the hard work from the people working in the field of robotics is that everything, from exploring the deepest depths of the ocean to exploring a completely different planet today, is achieved using different robots with highly specialized features or capabilities.
Types of Robots
Robotics is an incredibly vast and complex field. They have their applications in staggeringly varied areas of research or engineering in numerous industries. For example, research, military, governance, search and rescue, automation, manufacturing and so on. Thus, it is a very challenging task to account for all of the different types of robots used in each of those various industries. Still, we have attempted mentioning the most generalized models as briefly as possible.
- Pre-Programmed Robots
These are the robots used in applications that require performing the same task repeatedly but, faster and more efficiently, more precisely, and more cost-effectively than a human performing the same task. Thus they can be programmed once. As long the job remains unchanged, the program driving the robot to do the job also does not require any change. These robots can be found in manufacturing sites, on assembly lines and so on, doing tasks such as assembling the battery in a cell phone or welding an automobile’s frame.
- Autonomous Robots
These are generally robots that do not have a fixed surrounding and can thus explore an environment freely. These hence do not require a human operator and can perform their set of objectives in an open environment without human supervision.
- Humanoid Robots
These are robots designed and constructed to mimic human behavior and appearance or general human characteristics like facial expressions and so on. These robots can perform basic human tasks such as running, jumping, kicking a ball, etc., along with some level of natural language processing capabilities but are relatively limited, in terms of utility outside of the same. That is, however, not to discount from their future potential when humanoid robots indeed morph into a fully developed technology. These robots can very well become the holy grail of automated assistants, perhaps even integrate defensive subroutines and thus serve military applications aiding human soldiers or help civilians in self-defense as bodyguards or law-enforcement robots.
- Augmenting Robots
Many agree that maybe the only way for humans to keep up in an environment where everything is automated would be through a merger of the human body and the robots themselves, augmenting each other in the process. Early examples of this kind of technology can already be found in the prosthetic industry or development by companies such as Neuralink. Currently, they are used to augment a pre-existing human function or replace one that might be missing. For example, exoskeletons for lifting heavier weights or prosthetic body parts for the disabled, and so on.
Neuralink is a company attempting to create a literal Brain-Machine Interface with promising success! A BMI is a device that can directly convert thoughts into machine-readable inputs, essentially giving any human equipped with the same, the power to control a machine with one’s mind. Click here to read more about Brain-Machine Interfaces.
- Tele-operated Robots
Technological progress, as well as prowess over the centuries, has always been a direct function of human curiosity and explorative spirits. Tele-operated robots form a part of the technologies that help us humans keep on exploring and push further beyond the boundaries of what is known. These robots are generally human-operated but built to withstand extreme conditions such as weather, temperature, harsh terrain, a completely alien planet and so on. They collect data or perform necessary actions in observing and gathering, or repairing a given situation.
Uses of Robotics
The utility that the field of robotics, and consequently robots have found in the modern world is spread over a tremendous number of industries and use cases. Almost every primary industry today use robots, in some way, shape or form. Examples include the military, automobile industry, electronics industry, the fashion industry, film industry, aerospace, manufacturing, search and rescue, and so forth.
In Conclusion, the march of robotics and the industries and people it touches will continue to grow as long as us humans keep pushing the boundaries in exploring the unknown and thus creating breakthroughs in research. Therefore the answer to “What is robotics?” is probably more subject to change than we might imagine. It might be so as the world that robots might help build might be a world vastly altered from what we know today, perhaps also changing the nature of the lens through which we observe the world. Which way the change would take place, however, is a question whose answer is neither static nor variable, but as of today, most definitely uncertain.