Robots play an increasingly important role in our lives. From manufacturing to healthcare to entertainment, robots are dramatically changing the world. But how exactly do robots work? This comprehensive guide will explore the key components and functions that allow robots to sense, move, and interact with their environment.
What is a Robot?
A robot is a machine that can perform tasks automatically or with guidance. Robots are typically programmable and have capabilities that allow them to move and manipulate objects using a series of actuators, sensors, and control systems. On TechNewsTalk you can discover more about the anatomy of a robot.
Robots can be classified into different types depending on their use:
- Industrial robots – used in manufacturing, welding, painting, product inspection, etc.
- Service robots – perform valuable tasks like cleaning, delivery, surgery, etc.
- Military robots – used for intelligence gathering, rescue, surveillance, attack, etc.
- Entertainment robots – make music, dance, and interact with people for leisure.
No matter the application, all robots share three key components that enable them to function:
- Control Systems
How Robots Move
Robots can navigate through the world using a variety of actuators and sensors that work together to direct the robot’s movements.
Actuators are the “muscles” of a robot that enable movement. Some common types of robotic actuators include:
- Electric motors – spin wheels or joints to mobilize the robot
- Pneumatic actuators – use compressed gas to extend/retract components
- Hydraulic pistons – use pressurized fluid to create linear motion
- Shape memory alloys – contract/extend when heated/cooled
- Piezoelectric crystals – change shape when charged to make small movements
Sensors allow robots to detect their surrounding environment. Some sensors used in robots include:
- Light sensors – detect ambient light or contrasts
- Infrared sensors – measure heat emitted by objects
- Ultrasonic sensors – use sound waves to identify object range/position
- Tactile sensors – respond to physical touch, pressure, or force
- Proximity sensors – detect nearby objects without physical contact
- Inertial sensors – monitor velocity, orientation, and gravitational forces
The autonomous intelligence of robots comes from their sophisticated control systems. These systems process inputs from sensors and determine appropriate responses and movements of actuators.
- Microcontrollers – mini on-board computers that execute robot programming
- Central control unit – helps integrate sensor data to guide robot actions.
- Artificial intelligence – enables robots to adapt, problem solve, perceive
How Robots See
Vision systems give robots the ability to sense their surroundings visually. They use cameras and image processors to collect and analyze visual information.
- Stereo vision – two cameras mimic human binocular vision
- 3D vision – depth-aware cameras create 3D representations of environments
- LiDAR – pulsed lasers measure distance to objects
- Event-based cameras – register changes in scenes, working well with motion
Computer computers must process and interpret visual data to be understandable to robots. Image processing techniques include:
- Object classification – identifying objects in images or video feeds
- Object detection – finding where objects are located in environments
- Face recognition – detecting and identifying human faces
- Motion tracking – monitoring the movement of objects over time
- Environment mapping – generating multi-dimensional representations of spaces
How Robots Interact with Their Environment
For robots to provide helpful services, they need ways to manipulate objects and navigate environments physically.
Grippers & End Effectors
Grippers or end effectors are devices at the end of a robotic arm that enables physical interactions with the environment. Types include:
- Pincers/clamps – grabbing or holding objects
- Vacuum cups – suction to pick up objects
- Electromagnets – attract magnetic materials
- Drills/saws – adding or removing material from objects
Robots are equipped with tools and technology suited for particular applications:
- Welding/painting tools – for automotive manufacturing
- Medical instruments – for robotic surgery
- Fire hoses/extinguishers – for emergency response robots
- Agricultural tools – for picking fruit or milking cows
To move around, robots use:
- Wheels – commonly used on flat terrain
- Tracks – for increased stability and rough terrain
- Propellers – aerial drones have multiple rotors for flight
- Fins/thrusters – underwater robots use propulsion systems suited for aquatic mobility
How Robots Learn
More than programming is required for robots to adapt to complex real-world situations. Advanced robots leverage artificial intelligence and machine learning to improve over time.
Machine learning algorithms allow robots to learn from data without explicit programming. Common techniques include:
- Supervised learning – models trained on labeled datasets
- Unsupervised learning – finding hidden patterns in unlabeled data
- Reinforcement learning – optimizing behaviors through trial-and-error
AI gives robots human-like capabilities such as reasoning, creativity, perception, and planning.
- Computer vision – image processing and pattern recognition
- Natural language processing – understanding human languages
- Robot learning – improving skills through experience without reprogramming.
- Motion planning – navigating around obstacles to target destinations
How Robots Are Programmed
While some essential robot functions are pre-programmed, additional logic must be provided through programming languages and robot operating systems.
Languages used for robotics include:
- C++ – powerful and fast for complex programs
- Python – general purpose, suitable for AI and ML
- ROS – a framework with libraries tailored for robotics
Robot Operating Systems
Operating systems provide hardware abstraction, device control, networking, and other functionality out-of-the-box.
- ROS (Robot Operating System) – open source, widely used
- Adept Mobility OS – for mobile research robots
- Microsoft Robotics Developer Studio – visual programming environment
The Future of Robotics is Exciting
Robots have come a long way from early pre-programmed industrial arms. Today, advanced AI and unprecedented processing power allow robots to learn, perceive the world, and make intelligent decisions. As robots become more capable and autonomous, we will continue seeing them take on meaningful roles across our economy and society.
However, the increased adoption of robotics raises critical ethical questions. How can we ensure safety and prevent misuse as robotic technology advances? What impact will robots have on employment as they automate more jobs? As robots become more integrated into our lives, we must thoughtfully guide robotics development. But if nurtured responsibly, robotics promises to enable incredible progress for humanity.