Scientific advancement has led to a better understanding of humans and their surroundings. Today, we are able to manipulate scientific phenomena at macro, mini, micro as well as Nano-levels to create material and technology that benefits our lives and facilitate us to discover more aspects of this world as well as the universe.
Among the most fascinating discoveries and inventions that research and development has gifted humanity is robotics. Robotics is an interdisciplinary branch that is considered to be a part of engineering and sciences. It includes subjects like mechanical engineering, electronic engineering, information engineering, computer science, and others.
The main product of this field is a robot. Robots are automated machines that are programmed using computer language and are capable of carrying out a series of complex actions on their own, without any human intervention. These machines can be used as substitute for humans and replace human work, especially in dangerous environments to decrease risk of life.
Today, with the advent of technology, robots are being used for various activities, be it manufacturing services, sports programmes, and defence missions to even recreational utilities. It will not be a surprise if within next few decades; robots become a part of the life of an average human just like smartphones.
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Components and Structure of a Robot
Since robots are made by humans, they are mostly made keeping in mind the perfect image of a human. That is why there are so many humanoid robots that have been built by various developers. But there are operation specific robots too for example, the robots used in automobile manufacturing, performing micro-surgeries, etc. No matter what these robots look like, the basic structure and components remain the same. There are three principle requirements to make a fully functioning robot-
This is the ‘brain’ of the robot which processes the inputs and generates the outputs. In modern days, the controller is made of microprocessors which carry out the in-built computer programs to process whatever input the robot is being provided with. This is re-programmable depending upon the task in hand.
These are the components that pick up the stimulus from the environment of the robot. The inputs that are provided to the controller is ‘sensed’ by the sensors, therefore act as the ‘sense organs’ of the robot. Sensory inputs are in the form of visual, audio, tactile, radio and geophysical.
They make up for the ‘body’ of the robot through which output functions are carried out. Some important parts include the motors, pistons, grippers, wheels, and gears. These are usually electrically powered via batteries.
Structurally, as mentioned above, the stereotypical shape and size of a robot is that of a humanoid frame roughly ranging from the size of a toddler to that of a full grown adult human. But today, robots come in all shapes and sizes. Some robots consist of just a flexible arm with a main body like the ones which perform medical surgeries, while other involves UAVs and drones for military use. Nano-robots are the new age robots that are almost invisible to the human eyes due to their size in nano metres.
History of Robotics
Robotics is a very young branch of engineering sciences. Conventional robotics emerged in the 20th century with the onset of the industrial revolution. But human’s tryst with automation goes a long way back into the pages of history. Earliest legends often narrate the story of Pygmalion, a Greek sculptor who built a statue of a woman who came to life.
Greek mythology is full of such awe-inspiring examples like the independently mobile three legged table, the bronze man, etc. Buddhists too have their own version of automated machines as described by Daoxuan, they were made of metals and recited sacred texts and wept when Gautama Buddha died.
Lore of the recent that featured robots include the works of Czech novelist Karel Čapek, who in his 1920 novel- Rossum’s Universal Robots, coined the term ‘Robot’ for the first time and gave a vague definition of it.
Scientifically, it was Joseph Engelberger who was himself inspired by a short story written by Isaac Asimov to lay down the principles of real-world robotics, thus granting him the status of the Father of Robotics. He defined a robot to be a re-programmable machine which is fundamentally capable of movement and accomplishment of task.
But it was not until the mid-20th century, that the first robot was ever built. It was in the year 1954 that George Devol invented the world’s first re-programmable robot and coined the term ‘Universal Automation’. This was shortened to ‘Unimation’, which became the world’s first robotics company established in 1962 by Engelberger and Devol.
In 1978, Programmable Universal Machine for Assembly (PUMA) robot was created by Unimation using a general motor design support. Ever since, the robotics industry saw a growth spurt with start-ups and well established companies dabbling into this field and giving rise to the robots of the present.
Applications of Robots
A range of robots are utilised in various sectors in different ways. The most common image of a robot is of the humanoid type. These are robots that bear semblance to us humans in appearance. Sometimes they have the entire body, sometimes only the head and the torso, while sometimes only the head.
As of recent these robots are designed basically for brand endorsement and research on various functions of a human-like robot. Hong Kong based Hansen Robotics have developed ‘Sophia’ a humanoid robot which is a prototype that uses artificial intelligence to interact with its environment.
Next in list is the industrial application of robots. Robots find diverse utility in the field of various manufacturing units. They are employed in automobile assembly lines, cut and mould fabrics and materials to precise measures and design and inspect processed goods.
They also find use in the heavy lifting and translocation of bulk packages and goods too. They are designed to do almost every job- from cutting welding, monitoring, quality testing, forge, change parts, etc. Robots are being preferred as they reduce human error, make accurate products and are one time investments.
Not only industrial, robots are utilised for domestic purposes also. Security systems, automatic washing machines, automatic lawn mowers, automatic floor cleaners, dishwashers, ovens and other such appliances have potential of being automated, thus their service can be utilised to make lifestyle easy.
Another application of these machines is found in the medical field. The lower error probability, precise operation and higher outreach and monitoring capabilities have helped them become surgeons in sensitive surgeries that run a high risk of failures due to human error.
The high accuracy helps them make precision cuts and delicate movements prevent damage to surrounding tissues. They are able to focus just on the task at hand and complete the surgery without any hassle. Furthermore, they are being utilised as prosthetics that can interact with the human’s biological system and respond accordingly in a very natural and bionic manner.
Nano-robots are under development which can be used to carry drugs and medicines directly to the affected part of the body. This reduces the requirement of syringes and oral administration of drugs. Additionally, this also eliminates need of any major surgery too.
A crucial role of robots comes in the field of space research and development. Almost everything in construction and manufacturing is done utilised by robots. The various rovers and pods that are sent to extra-terrestrial locations are itself robots and perform operations like sample collection, transportation, self-repair, measuring temperature, altitude, time and pressure and sending messages back and forth from the space stations.
Robots have a big utility in underwater technology too. They assist the deep sea divers in locating various marine/aquatic underwater historical and ecological sites. Some countries also apply the submarine telecommunication cable networks which require regular maintenance and technical support.
Finally, use of robots in military organisations is one of the most intelligent yet destructive use of robots. Military organisations employ drones and UAVs to infiltrate and gather information regarding the enemy. Additionally, they can be utilised to perform dangerous tasks like mine sweeping and replace soldiers to effectively remove mines and IEDs from the war field.
Robotics in India
India does not wants to be outsmarted in the race of robotics, hence has opened a wide market for robotics. Unfortunately most of the bigger projects are undertaken by IITs, NITs and other famous government funded universities. Yet the private market is slowly emerging as a major player in the economic sector.
Being an interdisciplinary engineering science branch and with the current saturation of employment in conventional engineering jobs, the prospect of robotics as a career might become more popular thereby generating employment through this sector.
Robots are being used from providing rehabilitation to simply improve lifestyles worldwide, therefore it will no doubt going to be a huge future market service that will be controlling the national and international economies.
But no matter how high is the demand, as long as we do not improve our work culture, quality of education and lack of resources, having a high performing robotics industry will be a big challenge for the future India.
The components, materials and time required to develop even a fully operational prototype requires thousands of work hours and millions of dollars of investment to be able to be self-reliable.
Additionally, lack of skilled technicians and engineers will cause slower productivity rate which will altogether be a loss to the developer. These challenges have been constantly hampering the robotics program in India.
Robots are soon going to be a part and parcel of human life. Literary experts and theorists have predicted that robots can cause a negative impact on humanity my ‘turning against us’ and attacking us instead of catering to our needs, while many often dub these as modern solutions to solve bigger problems.
In reality, the advancement in the field of robotics has both a good side and a bad side. On the brighter note, they help the industries improve productivity, reduce error, decreases danger to human life and produce products cheaply.
But at the same time it also takes away skilled employment from people working in the factories. And if some fault develops in their system, they will definitely cause some problems with operations.
Hence it is up to us humans to understand the safe limits of inventions and utilise robotic services in specific and judicious ways. Otherwise, these automated machines that are governed by a set of computer programmes which interact with the environment and can carry out tasks, are quite a boon to the world.