Although the science of robotics only came about in the 20th century, the history of robots and human-invented automation has a much lengthier past. In fact, the ancient Greek engineer Hero of Alexandria produced two texts, Pneumatica and Automata, that testify to the existence of hundreds of different kinds of “wonder” machines capable of automated movement. Of course, the evolution of robots in the 20th and 21st centuries has advanced radically to include machines capable of assembling other machines and even robots that can be mistaken for human beings.
From our point of view, only too few attention was payed in the literature to the existence of unilateral constraints. In fact, most of the works on the control of biped robots model the robot in the single support phase as a manipulator whose base corresponds to the supporting foot and add some closed loop constraints for the double support phase. The Kent State University alumni family will grow by more than 2,500 new graduates as the university holds its fall commencement. The accomplishments of the Fall Class of 2020 will be recognized with a virtual commencement recognition ceremony on Saturday, Dec.
Where did the term robot come from? The word robotics was inadvertently coined by science fiction author Isaac Asimov in his 1941 story “Liar!” Science fiction authors throughout history have been interested in man’s capability of producing self-motivating machines and lifeforms, from the ancient Greek myth of Pygmalion to Mary Shelley’s Dr. Frankenstein and Arthur C. Clarke’s HAL 9000. Essentially, a robot is a re-programmable machine that is capable of movement in the completion of a task. Robots use special coding that differentiates them from other machines and machine tools, such as CNC. Robots have found uses in a wide variety of industries due to their robust resistance capabilities and precision function.
Many sources attest to the popularity of automatons in ancient and Medieval times. Ancient Greeks and Romans developed simple automatons for use as tools, toys, and as part of religious ceremonies. Predating modern robots in industry, the Greek God Hephaestus was supposed to have built automatons to work for him in a workshop. Unfortunately, none of the early automatons are extant.
In the Middle Ages, in both Europe and the Middle East, automatons were popular as part of clocks and religious worship. The Arab polymath Al-Jazari (1136-1206) left texts describing and illustrating his various mechanical devices, including a large elephant clock that moved and sounded at the hour, a musical robot band, and a waitress automaton that served drinks. In Europe, there is an automaton monk extant that kisses the cross in its hands. Many other automata were created that showed moving animals and humanoid figures that operated on simple cam systems, but in the 18th century, automata were understood well enough and technology advanced to the point where much more complex pieces could be made. French engineer Jacques de Vaucanson is credited with creating the first successful biomechanical automaton, a human figure that plays the flute. Automata were so popular that they traveled Europe entertaining heads of state such as Frederick the Great and Napoleon Bonaparte.
The Industrial Revolution and the increased focus on mathematics, engineering, and science in England in the Victorian age added to the momentum towards actual robotics. Charles Babbage (1791-1871) worked to develop the foundations of computer science in the early-to-mid nineteenth century, his most successful projects being the difference engine and the analytical engine. Although never completed due to a lack of funds, these two machines laid out the basics for mechanical calculations. Others such as Ada Lovelace recognized the future possibility of computers creating images or playing music.
Automata continued to provide entertainment during the 19th century, but coterminous with this period was the development of steam-powered machines and engines that helped to make manufacturing much more efficient and quick. Factories began to employ machines to either increase workloads or precision in the production of many products.
In 1920, Karel Capek published his play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots), which introduced the word “robot.” It was taken from an old Slavic word that meant something akin to “monotonous or forced labor.” However, it was more than thirty years before the first industrial robot went to work. In the 1950s, George Devol designed the Unimate, a robotic arm device that transported die castings in a General Motors plant in New Jersey, which started work in 1961. Unimation, the company Devol founded with robotic entrepreneur Joseph Engelberger, was the first robot manufacturing company. The robot was originally seen as a curiosity. Also in the mid-1950s, the German firm Kuka developed an automated welding line for appliances as well as a multi-spot welding line for Volkswagen. By 1968, Kawasaki had licensed a Unimation design of a hydraulic robot and had begun building them. In 1969, GM had achieved 90% of body welds using Unimates in one of its plants. In 1970, Stanford University developed the so-called Standard Arm, as it is still known today, used for small parts assembly and incorporating touch and pressure feedback.
Automated welding was to become the significant application of industrial robots as the machines could produce high-quality welds in somewhat inhospitable conditions. Kuka, by 1973, had introduced the six-axis arm, which would become an industry standard. This was about the same time that fully-electric robots began making their appearance. Cincinnati Milacron introduced a microcomputer-controlled industrial robot for commercial use in the same year. As the seventies rolled by, the decade saw many firsts: an all-electric microprocessor-controlled robot, a high precision insertion robot, higher payloads, a sensor-based welding robot, the PUMA robot for small parts assembly, development of the Selectively Compliant (SCARA) arm, and the switch from hydraulic to electric motor drives in spot welding robots.
When 1980 arrived, so too did a demonstration of machine vision at the University of Rhode Island. GM would put three robots to work the next year sorting castings by machine vision. More innovation would pepper the decade: the development of a robot programming language, a direct drive SCARA robot. Speeds and capacities were heading up, too.
The 1990s brought innovations in robot controls and synchronization as well as the first packaging robot, which loaded pretzels. A patent late in the decade added laser guiding directly on the robot arm.
Many were astounded in 2003 by the feats of NASA robotic rovers Spirit and Opportunity exploring the surface of Mars. 2004 saw the synchronization of four robots, and a total of 38 axes working together. The next year, a wireless teach pendant made instructing a robot safer. Strides continued in lightweighting, payload capacities, and reach, speeds, and multi-axis synchronization.
Robots went to work in homes in 2003 with the introduction of the Roomba robotic vacuum. By 2009 the development of autonomous industrial vehicles was well underway and by the start of the next decade, robotic arms were becoming mobile in the industrial space. The year 2013 saw the introduction of collaborative robots, or COBOTS, designed to work side by side with human workers. By the next year, AMRs, or Autonomous Mobile Robots, were actively at work in warehouses. In 2015 Omron Electronics bought Adept Technologies, whose roots trace back to Unimation, the first robot company. Similar big buys would take place during the remainder of the decade.
Over the last half-century, robots have found a place in other spheres, as toys and entertainment, military weapons, search and rescue assistants, and many other jobs. Essentially, as programming and technology improve, robots find their way into many jobs that in the past have been too dangerous, dull, or impossible for humans to achieve.
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Artificial intelligence (AI) is set to disrupt practically every industry imaginable, and industrial robotics is no different. The powerful combination of robotics and AI or machine learning is opening the door to entirely new automation possibilities.
Currently, artificial intelligence and machine learning are being applied in limited ways and enhancing the capabilities of industrial robotic systems. We have yet to reach the full potential of robotics and machine learning, but current applications are promising.
There are four areas of robotic processes that AI and machine learning are impacting to make current applications more efficient and profitable. The scope of AI in robotics includes:
AI and machine learning are still in their infancy in regards to robotic applications, but they’re already having an important impact.
Supply chain and logistics applications are seeing some of the first implementations of AI and machine learning in robotics.
In one example, a robotic arm is responsible for handling frozen cases of food that are covered in frost. The frost causes the shape of the objects to change – the robot is not just presented different parts occasionally, it’s being continuously presented with differently shaped parts. AI helps the robot detect and grasp these objects despite the variations in shape.
Another prime example of machine learning involves picking and placing over 90,000 different part types in a warehouse. This volume of part types wouldn’t be profitable to automate without machine learning, but now engineers can regularly feed robots images of new parts and the robot can then successfully grasp these part types.
AI and machine learning will have a transformative impact on industrial robots. While these technologies are still in their infancy, they will continue to push the boundaries of what’s possible with industrial robotic automation over the next few decades.
To learn more about this subject, sign up for our free archived webinar, “Applying Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning in Robotics.”