In the last 80 years, thanks to enormous technological progress, robots have transformed from a futuristic utopia into an integral part of the modern world. In the article, we present the types of robots that exist, how they are differentiated, and their various benefits.
As announced in Part 1 (Robotics – From the beginnings up until the present) of the article, we now continue with the short excursion into the world of robotics.
Currently, the largest application area of robotics is industrial robotics. The first modern programmable “manipulator” was patented by US inventor George Devol in 1954. He and his business partner Joseph Engelberger then launched the “Unimate” in 1960, the first hydraulically operated industrial robot arm that could execute a few commands stored on a magnetic drum. Just one year later, this invention was used for particularly hazardous welding work in a General Motors assembly line, paving the way for the fully automated production lines that we know from many industries today.
Industrial robots are classically fixed in one place, usually have one (gripper) arm, and are also not equipped with very much “intelligence.” While they can perform a variety of tasks, their immobility means they only have an unchanging environment, so little to no interaction with it is required. In terms of safety, such robot arms are shielded structurally or by light barriers or the like, since, for example, humans approaching the moving robots are not detected and there is a considerable risk of injury.
However, the first mobile robots, i.e. robots that could move in a given environment, albeit remotely controlled, were developed at MIT only a few years later, in 1968.
Between 1966 and 1972, the Stanford Research Institute in the United States developed the robot “Shakey,” which used its own task planning to carry out a specified command (pushing a block off a platform) and is thus considered the world’s first mobile autonomous robot. The hallmarks of mobile autonomous robots are that they can move and act autonomously in their environment, and there can be various gradations in the degree of autonomy. A separate subfield of autonomous mobile robotics is, for example, autonomous driving, i.e., driverless participation of motor vehicles in road traffic. The tasks that autonomous driving has to cope with as a use case are very special and complex and therefore cannot be compared with other scenarios of autonomous mobile robotics.
Autonomous transport systems – AGV
Autonomous transport systems, also known as AGVs (Automated Guided Vehicles), represent an intersection between industrial robots and mobile autonomous robotics. These driverless transport vehicles have their own (electric) drive and are used in industrial environments as a flexible replacement for space-intensive conveyor belts or as an intelligent solution in warehouses. Navigation is usually (partially) autonomous.
In contrast to industrial robots, which pose a risk of injury to humans due to the almost non-existent interaction possibilities and the speed and force with which tasks are performed and are shielded with protective barriers, cobots are robots with fine sensor technology and reduced risk of injury that work directly with humans. However, even though this robot software can detect and respond to collision risks with people or objects (by reducing speed to a standstill), safety measures such as emergency stop switches or human monitoring, or remote control are still necessary.
The so-called humanoid robots come closest to the age-old idea of a human-like machine being. Japan is considered to be the pioneer in this field since the first humanoid robot “Wabot 1” was presented at Waseda University in Tokyo in 1973 and the Honda company, actually known for cars, launched its own research program for humanoid robots in 1986. The development of humanoid robots has to meet many difficult technical challenges, starting with the rather unstable way of locomotion on two legs, to the complex procedures of performing tasks with two arms and hands, to sophisticated reaction and interaction capabilities with the environment. However, in research or for show purposes, humanoid robots have already succeeded in performing quite amazing activities such as riding a bike, catching and throwing a ball, pouring drinks, or playing trumpet. In the commercial sector, Honda launched “ASIMO” in 2004, which is also under continuous development, but no humanoid robot has yet reached market maturity or widespread use. The purpose of humanoid robots is mostly to be used as multifunctional helpers for humans, e.g. in the household or as a relief for elderly care. This intention also fails due to the low social acceptance of humanoid robots. The great advantage of humanoid robots would be that they could move most easily in environments made for humans (houses, steps, road traffic), due to their dimensions similar to those of humans and their comparable mode of locomotion, without requiring extensive structural adaptation measures.
Service robots are mostly cobots, i.e. controlled or autonomous robots that are used in a wide variety of areas of life in cooperation with humans, for example in surgery, where robots support the very precise work of the surgeon. Initial pilot projects for the use of service robots are also being conducted in the more traditionally oriented field of agriculture or for therapeutic purposes for the human musculoskeletal system.
The science and technology branch of robotics, actually a comprehensive cross-sectional discipline between technology and natural science, has already brought mankind a long way in realizing the idea of robots. Great progress has already been made through the interaction of disciplines such as design, mechatronics, software engineering, sensor technology, and so on.
What does the future hold for robotics?
However, we are still a long way from “machine people” completely independent of human control, as they have been shown to us in literature and films. Indeed, more and more “service robots” such as lawn mowing robots or vacuum cleaning robots populate our households, and in a time horizon of 10 years, our streets may be used by autonomous vehicles. However, the complexity of human perception, locomotion, and the ability to react and interact with the environment is unique and still far from being one hundred percent technically replicable.
Nevertheless, no company and no sector of the economy will be able to do without robot technology in the future.
Author: Lena Sophie Franke