Intro To Robotics

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Part 1. Overview

What is a robot?

A robot is a mechanical device that is designed and built to carry out a specific activity or series of activities either automatically, under computer control, using a programmed set of instructions (autonomous mode) or under the control of a human. Robots are usually designed to robustly perform laborious and or complex tasks with repeated precision. In the case of our robotics club, our robots are designed and built to perform fun tasks, e.g., pick up and stack crates, move the stack crates about an arena, throw a ball.

History of Robotics

Machines that are capable of automated movement were known to exists since the time of the ancient Greeks. As early as 270 BC Ctesibus, a Greek engineer, made organs and water clocks with movable figures. Heron of Alexandria (10-70 AD), a Greek engineer and mathematician, was a famous inventor and his first published works of his inventions were published as, Pneumatica (a book that describes an array of mechanical devices) and Automata (a book on theoretical knowledge and practical skills necessary for an architect). These works report the existence of automated machines, see Figure 1. He also invented the first automatic coin operated vending machine and many other automatic machines.


Figure 1. A reconstruction of Heron’s wind powered organ and wind wheel (1st century AD). This instrument marks the first use of wind to power a machine.

Although Heron’s inventions were not classified according to the guidelines of 20th century robotics, these inventions were in fact made to perform specific tasks repeatedly and precisely, i.e., they were robots. From this time throughout the ages until the time of Karel Capek there were many automated inventions that were not classified as robots.

The word robot comes from the Czechoslovakian word robotnik (The English translation is slave) and the word robot was first used by the Czech playwright Karl Capek in 1921 in his play Rosumovi Univerzální Roboti (Rossum’s Universal Robots). This play features a story about mechanical men that were built to work on factory assembly lines and these mechanical men subsequently rebelled against their human masters, Figure 2.


Figure 2: A very human-like mechanical man from the play Rosumovi Univerzální Roboti.

The Oxford dictionary defines robotics as follows; “The branch of technology that deals with the design, construction, operation, and application of robots”. The term robotics was first introduced by a Russian-born American science-fiction writer Isaac Asimov who used this word in a 1942 short story entitled "Runabout." In this story robots were portrayed as helpful servants of man.

Robotics and the current use of robots in society

The 1900s are considered as the beginning of the modern age of robotics and the field gained immense popularity form here on. The year 1966 is of particular importance in the history of robotics because the first mobile robot that understood and could react to its own actions was invented. This robot was called “Shakey” and it was created at the Stanford Research Institute (SRI) Menlo Park, California. Robots are currently used in many arears of our daily lives. A few applications are briefly discussed below.

  • Industrial: Industrial robots have been in use for about 50 years in many areas of industrial production e.g., the first (1961) industrial robot, named Unimate, was employed in the General Electric Motor factory. This 4000 pound robot transported die castings from the assembly line then subsequently welded these parts on to the bodies of the automobiles. Subsequently, robots were used to perform many different industrial tasks (primarily in the motor industry) such as, metal machining and plastic molding, spark and arc welding, assembly operations, mechanical laser and water jet cutting.
  • Military. The military uses robots for a variety of applications which range from locating, handling and destroying unsafe objects to tactical unmanned ground vehicles for recognizance.
  • Domestic. Currently, household chores are made easy with the use of various robotic devices such as the “Roomba” (a low profile vacuum the moves continuously about the house cleaning the floors). This device returns to its charging station and plugs itself in for charging. Gutter cleaning is made easy with the Looj gutter cleaning robot.
  • Medical. One of the very famous robots used in medicine is the DaVinci Surgical System (Figure 3) that was approved in 2000 by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The da Vinci System allows surgeons to operate with enhanced vision (magnified 3D high-definition vision system) precision, dexterity and control (tiny wristed instruments that bend and rotate far greater than the human wrist). This robot facilitates the performance of minimally invasive complex surgeries that are controlled by surgeons from a computer console.


Figure 3: The DaVinci Surgical System showing patient bed (draped in blue), the effector arms (surgical manipulation) and endoscope (3D high resolution visualization of the tissue of interest).

  • Entertainment Industry. Everyone knows the following very famous quote “I’ll be back!” This quote is from the 1984 science fiction film The Terminator in which Arnold Schwarzenegger starred as a cyborg (a fictional biomechanical humanoid with great physical abilities) assassin who was sent back from the future to kill the mother of a boy who would be instrumental in saving the human race in his post-apocalyptic future, Figure 4.


Figure 4. The Terminator, an autonomus robot in his activated (online) state as evidenced by the red robotic eye. The red glow disappears when the Terminator powers down.

  • Just for fun! The Carlmont High School Robotics Team is an after school club that focusses on teaching the technical basics of robot design and fabrication, all under the guise of “having fun”. There are many skills to be learned while building a robot, computer programming, computer aided design (CAD), the theoretical/practical laws of pneumatics and mechanics as well as fabricating the parts of the robot and successfully putting them together, ultimately having a machine that works and does the tasks for which it was designed. These are all “real world” skills that are used in Science, Engineering and Technology jobs globally.

The FRC and Robotics Competitions

One might ask why build Robots to do such specific tasks such as stacking creates and recycle bins? Simply put, the robots are built not only for students to learn but also to compete against other robotic teams, hence the tasks. All teams are affiliated with a global organization named FIRST. FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) robotics was founded by Dean Kamen in 1989 and its mission statement is as follows; “Our mission is to inspire young people to be science and technology leaders, by engaging them in exciting mentor-based programs that build science, engineering and technology skills, that inspire innovation, and that foster well-rounded life capabilities including self-confidence, communication, and leadership”. FIRST encourages high quality work as well as work ethic, respect of one’s peers and community. Of course along with building robots there is competition, fierce fun and failure but immense camaraderie, hence the robots being built to perform specific tasks. Each year high school teams compete at the FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC), the 2015 competition was held in St Louis, USA. Please go to the following URL to read all about FIRST and the various leagues (Junior First Lego League (Jr.FLL), First Lego League (FLL), FIRST Tech Challenge (FTC)) that exist within FIRST,

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