Robotics is the branch of technology that deals with the design, construction, operation, structural disposition, manufacture and application of robots and computer systems for their control, sensory feedback, and information processing.
The concept and creation of machines that could operate autonomously dates back to classical times, but research into the functionality and potential uses of robots did not grow substantially until the 20th century.
Today, robotics is a rapidly growing field, as we continue to research, design, and build new robots that serve various practical purposes, whether domestically, commercially, or militarily. Many robots do jobs that are hazardous to people such as defusing bombs, exploring shipwrecks, and mines.
Fully autonomous robots only appeared in the second half of the 20th century. The first digitally operated and programmable robot, the Unimate, was installed in 1961 to lift hot pieces of metal from a die casting machine and stack them. Commercial and industrial robots are widespread today and used to perform jobs more cheaply, or more accurately and reliably, than humans. They are also employed in jobs which are too dirty, dangerous, or dull to be suitable for humans. Robots are widely used in manufacturing, assembly, packing and packaging, transport, earth and space exploration, surgery, weaponry, laboratory research, safety, and the mass production of consumer and industrial goods.
At present; mostly (lead-acid) batteries are used, but potential power sources could be:
- pneumatic (compressed gases)
- hydraulics (liquids)
- flywheel energy storage
- organic garbage (through anaerobic digestion)
- faeces (human, animal); may be interesting in a military context as faeces of small combat groups may be reused for the energy requirements of the robot assistant (see DEKA's project Slingshot Stirling engine on how the system would operate)
- still unproven energy sources: for example Nuclear fusion, as yet not used in nuclear reactors whereas Nuclear fission is proven (although there are not many robots using it as a power source apart from the Chinese rover tests.).
- radioactive source (such as with the proposed Ford car of the '50s); to those proposed in movies such as Red Planet
Elastic nanotubes are a promising artificial muscle technology in early-stage experimental development. The absence of defects in carbon nanotubes enables these filaments to deform elastically by several percent, with energy storage levels of perhaps 10 J/cm3 for metal nanotubes. Human biceps could be replaced with an 8 mm diameter wire of this material. Such compact "muscle" might allow future robots to outrun and outjump humans.
Current robotic and prosthetic hands receive far less tactile information than the human hand. Recent research has developed a tactile sensor array that mimics the mechanical properties and touch receptors of human fingertips. The sensor array is constructed as a rigid core surrounded by conductive fluid contained by an elastomeric skin. Electrodes are mounted on the surface of the rigid core and are connected to an impedance-measuring device within the core. When the artificial skin touches an object the fluid path around the electrodes is deformed, producing impedance changes that map the forces received from the object. The researchers expect that an important function of such artificial fingertips will be adjusting robotic grip on held objects.
Scientists from several European countries and Israel developed a prosthetic hand in 2009, called SmartHand, which functions like a real one—allowing patients to write with it, type on akeyboard, play piano and perform other fine movements. The prosthesis has sensors which enable the patient to sense real feeling in its fingertips.
Computer vision is the science and technology of machines that see. As a scientific discipline, computer vision is concerned with the theory behind artificial systems that extract information from images. The image data can take many forms, such as video sequences and views from cameras.
In most practical computer vision applications, the computers are pre-programmed to solve a particular task, but methods based on learning are now becoming increasingly common.
Computer vision systems rely on image sensors which detect electromagnetic radiation which is typically in the form of either visible light or infra-red light. The sensors are designed using solid-state physics. The process by which light propagates and reflects off surfaces is explained using optics. Sophisticated image sensors even require quantum mechanics to provide a complete understanding of the image formation process.
There is a subfield within computer vision where artificial systems are designed to mimic the processing and behavior of biological systems, at different levels of complexity. Also, some of the learning-based methods developed within computer vision have their background in biology.
Pneumatic artificial muscles, also known as air muscles, are special tubes that contract (typically up to 40%) when air is forced inside them. They have been used for some robot applications
One of the most common effectors is the gripper. In its simplest manifestation it consists of just two fingers which can open and close to pick up and let go of a range of small objects. Fingers can for example be made of a chain with a metal wire run through it. Hands that resemble and work more like a human hand include the Shadow Hand, the Robonaut hand,... Hands that are of a mid-level complexity include ie the Delft hand, ..
Vacuum grippers are very simple astrictive devices, but can hold very large loads provided the prehension surface is smooth enough to ensure suction.
Pick and place robots for electronic components and for large objects like car windscreens, often use very simple vacuum grippers.
General purpose effectors
Some advanced robots are beginning to use fully humanoid hands, like the Shadow Hand, MANUS and the Schunk hand .These highly dexterous manipulators, with as many as 20 degrees of freedom and hundreds of tactile sensors.
If robots are to work effectively in homes and other non-industrial environments, the way they are instructed to perform their jobs, and especially how they will be told to stop will be of critical importance. The people who interact with them may have little or no training in robotics, and so any interface will need to be extremely intuitive. Science fiction authors also typically assume that robots will eventually be capable of communicating with humans through speech, gestures, and facial expressions, rather than a command-line interface. Although speech would be the most natural way for the human to communicate, it is unnatural for the robot. It will probably be a long time before robots interact as naturally as the fictional C-3PO.
Artificial emotions can also be generated, composed of a sequence of facial expressions and/or gestures. As can be seen from the movie Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, the programming of these artificial emotions is complex and requires a large amount of human observation. To simplify this programming in the movie, presets were created together with a special software program. This decreased the amount of time needed to make the film. These presets could possibly be transferred for use in real-life robots.
Many of the robots of science fiction have a personality, something which may or may not be desirable in the commercial robots of the future. Nevertheless, researchers are trying to create robots which appear to have a personality: i.e. they use sounds, facial expressions, and body language to try to convey an internal state, which may be joy, sadness, or fear. One commercial example is Pleo, a toy robot dinosaur, which can exhibit several apparent emotions.