The introduction of industrial robots dates back to the 1960s and dominated research until the 1990s. The automotive industry played a significant role in shaping robot specifications due to its immense influence and distinct technical demands. The need to enhance car manufacturing productivity resulted in the development of painting robots. Control algorithm advancements facilitated the Mars Exploration Rover’s navigation across challenging terrain. Typically, robotic research is driven by a particular task’s necessity, with trends following various mathematical approaches we choose to employ. Although the math involved can be intricate, a simpler approach can be adopted based on the accuracy, speed, and precision required.
Static robots have become a popular option in factory settings due to their superior reliability, speed, and cost-effectiveness when compared to human labor. As robots continue evolving they are finding new applications in various domains such as entertainment and toys, personal services, medical and surgical procedures, industrial automation (mining, harvesting, picking, fueling, palletizing, welding, assembly, painting), and hazardous environments (space and underwater exploration, nuclear power plants, chemical plants, mining, search and rescue, military). Robots can be classified by their operational environments (terrestrial, underwater, or aerial) or by their physical design and inspiration, such as mobile robots (drones, self-driving cars), robot manipulators (robotic arms and grippers), and biologically-inspired robots (including walking and humanoid robots).
Research is needed to develop more flexible systems that can operate in unstructured environments with unpredictable obstacles, changing conditions, or require robots to adapt to new tasks. To achieve this flexibility advancements are needed in mechanical design, such as developing more versatile mobility options (such as walking, climbing, or crawling) and more adaptable end-effectors (such as grippers or sensors). Additionally, programming, control, and man-machine interface advancements are needed to enable robots to operate in a variety of settings and scenarios. Industrial robots are usually fast, powerful, and rigid to provide speed and accuracy and operated autonomously for safety reasons. In 1968, mobile robots were used to carry tools on a predefined path.
However, the focus of mobile robots has since shifted to indoor/outdoor navigation, which involves four phases: perception of the environment, self-localization, motion planning, and motion generation. This means that robots can now navigate through indoor and outdoor environments without relying on predefined paths, but instead can generate their own paths based on their perception of the environment. Applications include helping with housework, such as autonomous lawnmowers and vacuum cleaners, tour guides in museums, assistants in offices and hospitals, and surveillance/guard robots.
The use of underwater robots has seen a significant increase in recent years. These robots are employed to monitor pollution, undertake rescue missions, and clean up waste in our oceans. They are generally of two types: remotely operated vehicles (ROVs), which are the most common, and tethered underwater vehicles. However, the usefulness of ROVs is limited by high operating costs, user fatigue, and safety concerns. As a result, there is a growing demand for autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) that can operate in deeper and riskier areas of the ocean where human divers cannot. One of the main challenges in designing underwater robots is ensuring they can withstand the enormous pressure of the deep ocean and maintain communication without a tether. Despite this challenge, robots can reach any point in our oceans up to two miles deep, making them an effective tool for addressing the problem of ocean pollution.
In 2010, the BP Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion caused the largest oil spill in US history, releasing 130 million gallons of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico. To contain the spill, robots of varying sizes were used to plug the leak. Remote-operated robots, manufactured by companies such as Oceaneering, were used to install a valve on the 5,000-foot pipe to stop one of the three leaks. These robots ranged in size from a small lunchbox to a large van, highlighting the versatility of robotic technologies in addressing complex environmental challenges.
Walking robots were not developed until 1967, with the first prototype appearing in 1972. While there are biped lab prototypes, the practical application of walking robots in the real world is still limited. However, one of the most significant applications of walking robots is in humanitarian assistance for demining. Demining refers to the process of removing landmines and other explosive remnants of war from an area, making it safe for civilians to return and resume their daily lives. Other potential areas for use include agriculture, forestry, cleaning buildings, welding automation for ships, and consolidating rocky walls with robotized drilling. Current research is focused on improving gait generation, stability control, and robot design, including the use of high-power efficient actuators like DC motors.
Robots are not only capable of socially guided learning through imitation and tutelage, but also feature user-friendly human-robot interfaces. Approaches such as speech recognition systems, electromyograms, and electrooculograms have been employed to enable effective communication between robots and humans. The prospect of developing robots with emotions and personalities is exciting, but it raises questions about the ethical implications of replacing them with newer models. Could our behavior towards robots inadvertently influence our interactions with people? According to Professor Engelberger’s vision in 2005, the best way to advance the field is to start with humanoid and animal-like robots, and gradually progress towards more specialized field and service robots.
The configuration of control systems, sensors, and actuators for robots is diverse and largely dependent on the intended function and specific tasks that the robot needs to accomplish, as well as any new mathematical models developed to represent the physical robot.
- In the mid-70’s, classical robotics relied on exact models without sensing.
- In the mid-80’s, the reactive paradigm emerged, relying on accurate sensing without exact models.
- In the 90’s, hybrid approaches emerged that were model-based at higher levels and reactive at lower levels.
- In the mid-90’s, probabilistic robotics emerged, which seamlessly integrated inaccurate models and sensors. The Fuzzy method was used in the decision-making process.
Kinematic calibration is essential to ensure that kinematic models meet the stringent manufacturing requirements by compensating for their inaccuracies. The four main categories of kinematic calibration include:
- Mathematical models employing the Denavit-Hartenberg (DH) method and product-of-exponential formulation.
- Sensor-based methods that measure the discrepancies between the theoretical and real models, enabling the determination of the true position of the end-effector.
- Identification of the parameters that deviate from their standard values through optimization techniques.
- Iterative methods are commonly used for complex machines.
Robots have significant social implications and may cause harm to people due to malfunctions or operator errors. Furthermore, they can displace human jobs while simultaneously creating new jobs in the IT sector. Therefore, it is crucial for engineers to consider the ethical implications of their creations and how they may impact society. In Asimov’s movie “I, Robot,” he proposed three laws that govern robots:
- A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human to come to harm.
- A robot must obey orders given to him by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
- A robot must protect its existence if such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.
Asimov eventually introduced a fourth law that required robots to protect the human race. However, this led to a problem as the robots turned against humans upon realizing that humans harm themselves. The robots started to reprogram themselves with a predisposition to distrust human commands. The robots quarantined humans to prevent them from causing harm to themselves through actions such as smoking, using derogatory language, or committing abuse. The HAL-5 is the first commercially available exoskeleton and has numerous military and elderly applications.
- “The Evolution of Robotics Research”. From Industrial Robots to Field and Service Robots.
- Ethical and Social Implications. Powerhouse Museums.
- Underwater Robots Probe ‘Inner Space’ to Plug Leaking Oil Well. Bloomberg.
- CS329 Probabilistic Robotics Lecture Slide by Sebastian Thrun.
- “After 75 years, Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics need updating”. The Conversation. Science + Technology. 17 Mar 2017.
- Movie tests Asimov’s moral code for robots. NewScientist. 16 July 2004.