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How science fiction has become science fact; robot wars, how you can join.

A robot can be defined as a programmable, self-controlled device consisting of electronic, electrical, or mechanical units. More generally, it is a machine that functions in place of a living agent. Robots are especially desirable for certain work functions because, unlike humans, they never get tired; they can endure physical conditions that are uncomfortable or even dangerous; they can operate in airless conditions; they do not get bored by repetition; and they cannot be distracted from the task at hand.

The concept of robots is a very old one yet the actual word robot was invented in the 20th century from the Czechoslovakian word robota or robotnik meaning slave, servant, or forced labor. Robots don't have to look or act like humans but they do need to be flexible so they can perform different tasks.

Early industrial robots handled radioactive material in atomic labs and were called master/slave manipulators. They were connected together with mechanical linkages and steel cables. Remote arm manipulators can now be moved by push buttons, switches or joysticks.

Current robots have advanced sensory systems that process information and appear to function as if they have brains. Their "brain" is actually a form of computerized artificial intelligence (AI). AI allows a robot to perceive conditions and decide upon a course of action based on those conditions.

A robot can include any of the following components:

  • effectors - "arms", "legs", "hands", "feet"
  • sensors - parts that act like senses and can detect objects or things like heat and light and convert the object information into symbols that computers understand
  • computer - the brain that contains instructions called algorithms to control the robot
  • equipment - this includes tools and mechanical fixtures
  • Characteristics that make robots different from regular machinery are that robots usually function by themselves, are sensitive to their environment, adapt to variations in the environment or to errors in prior performance, are task oriented and often have the ability to try different methods to accomplish a task.
Common industrial robots are generally heavy rigid devices limited to manufacturing. They operate in precisely structured environments and perform single highly repetitive tasks under preprogrammed control. There were an estimated 720,000 industrial robots in 1998.

Teleoperated robots are used in semi-structured environments such as undersea and nuclear facilities. They perform non-repetitive tasks and have limited real-time control.

Robot Timeline

  • ~270BC an ancient Greek engineer named Ctesibus made organs and water clocks with movable figures.
  • 1818 - Mary Shelley wrote "Frankenstein" which was about a frightening artificial lifeform created by Dr. Frankenstein.
  • 1921 - The term "robot" was first used in a play called "R.U.R." or "Rossum's Universal Robots" by the Czech writer Karel Capek. The plot was simple: man makes robot then robot kills man!
  • 1941 - Science fiction writer Isaac Asimov first used the word "robotics" to describe the technology of robots and predicted the rise of a powerful robot industry.
  • 1942 - Asimov wrote "Runaround", a story about robots which contained the "Three Laws of Robotics":
  • A robot may not injure a human, or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  • A robot must obey the orders it by human beings except where such orders would conflic with the First Law.
  • A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict withe the First or Second Law.
  • 1948 - "Cybernetics", an influence on artificial intelligence research was published by Norbert Wiener
  • 1956 - George Devol and Joseph Engelberger formed the world's first robot company.
  • 1959 - Computer-assisted manufacturingg was demonstrated at the Servomechanisms Lab at MIT.
  • 1961 - The first industrial robot was online in a General Motors automobile factory in New Jersey. It was called UNIMATE.
  • 1963 - The first artificial robotic arm to be controlled by a computer was designed. The Rancho Arm was designed as a tool for the handicapped and it's six joints gave it the flexibility of a human arm.
  • 1965 - DENDRAL was the first expert system or program designed to execute the accumulated knowledge of subject experts.
  • 1968 - The octopus-like Tentacle Arm was developed by Marvin Minsky.
  • 1969 - The Stanford Arm was the first electrically powered, computer-controlled robot arm.
  • 1970 - Shakey was introduced as the first mobile robot controlled by artificial intellence. It was produced by SRI International.
  • 1974 - A robotic arm (the Silver Arm) that performed small-parts assembly using feedback from touch and pressure sensors was designed.
  • 1979 - The Standford Cart crossed a chair-filled room without human assistance. The cart had a tv camera mounted on a rail which took pictures from multiple angles and relayed them to a computer. The computer analyzed the distance between the cart and the obstacles.
  • Information provided by NASA/Rover Ranch
Robotics and Robots
Professional/amateur robotic sites - Ordering robot kits, parts and general electronic supplies, places to compete with robots, robot demos and robotic inventions in action, robotic model competitions.

James McLurkin
Robot Ants
James McLurkin invented microrobots that work together as a community.

Akhil Madhani
Akhil Madhani Lemelson-MIT Award For Robotic Invention
Akhil Madhani was honored with the Lemelson-MIT Award for his Black Falcon teleoperated surgical instrument.

Daniel DiLorenzo
Daniel DiLorenzo
Daniel DiLorenzo invented neuroelectric systems. DiLorenzo designed, built and micro surgically implanted neuroelectric interfaces that provided patients with the sensory feedback otherwise lacking in paralyzed or even prosthetic limbs - interview with the inventor.

©Mary Bellis

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