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What is robotics?

by Stephen M. Walker II, Co-Founder / CEO

What is robotics?

Robotics is an interdisciplinary field that integrates various aspects of mechanical engineering, computer science, electrical engineering, and other related fields. It involves the design, construction, operation, and use of robots. The goal of robotics is to design machines that can assist humans, automate tasks, and perform jobs that might be hazardous or impossible for humans.

Robots can take on many forms and are classified into several types based on their functionality and design. The six most common types of robots are autonomous mobile robots (AMRs), automated guided vehicles (AGVs), articulated robots, humanoids, cobots (collaborative robots), and hybrids.

AMRs are capable of moving around and making decisions in real-time, using sensors and cameras to understand their surroundings. AGVs, on the other hand, rely on predefined paths and often require operator oversight. They are commonly used in controlled environments like warehouses and factory floors. Articulated robots, also known as robotic arms, emulate the functions of a human arm and are ideal for tasks like arc welding, material handling, and packaging. Humanoid robots perform human-centric functions and often take human-like forms. Cobots are designed to function alongside or directly with humans, often used to eliminate manual, dangerous, or strenuous tasks from day-to-day workflows. Hybrid robots combine the features of different types of robots to perform more complex tasks.

Robots are used across various industries. In manufacturing, they expedite processes, drive efficiency, and promote safety. In healthcare, they assist medical professionals and enhance patient care. In logistics, they help deliver goods quickly and efficiently. In retail and hospitality, they automate inventory processes and enhance customer experience. They are also used in agriculture, security, space exploration, and entertainment.

The field of robotics has grown substantially in the 21st century, with robots now used to perform repetitive tasks, assist in dangerous environments, and even aid in complex surgeries. However, the concept of robotics isn't new. The term "robotics" was first used in print by Isaac Asimov in his science fiction short story "Liar!", published in May 1941.

Despite the numerous benefits of robotics, such as increased accuracy, cost reduction, and enhanced safety, there are also challenges. These include security risks, as robotic devices could potentially be hacked or hijacked, and power requirements, as robots consume a lot of energy to operate.

What is a robot?

A robot is a machine, often programmable by a computer, capable of carrying out a complex series of actions automatically. Robots can be guided by an external control device or the control can be embedded within them. They can take various forms, from machines designed for stark functionality to those that resemble humans or animals in appearance and behavior. Robots can be autonomous or semi-autonomous and are used in a wide range of applications, including manufacturing, assembly, transport, earth and space exploration, surgery, and more.

The term "robot" can also refer to virtual software agents, although these are usually referred to as bots.

Robots typically possess some or all of the following abilities and functions: accepting electronic programming, processing data or physical perceptions electronically, operating autonomously to some degree, moving around, operating physical parts of themselves or physical processes, sensing and manipulating their environment, and exhibiting intelligent behavior.

What are the different types of robots?

Robots can be classified into various types based on their functionality, design, and application. Here are some of the main categories:

  1. Aerospace Robots: These include flying robots and space robots. Examples include the SmartBird robotic seagull, the Raven drone, and space robots like the Curiosity and Perseverance Mars rovers.

  2. Aquatic Robots: These robots are designed to operate in water and are used to gather environmental data.

  3. Consumer Robots: These are robots designed for personal use, such as the Roomba vacuum cleaner, AI-powered companions like LOVOT, and robotic toys and kits.

  4. Delivery Robots: These robots are designed to deliver goods.

  5. Educational Robots: These are used in classrooms and homes to help students learn problem-solving and coding skills. Examples include programmable robots like Cubelets, Dash and Dot, and Root.

  6. Entertainment Robots: These robots are designed for entertainment purposes.

  7. Humanoid Robots: These robots have a mechanical body with arms, legs, and a head like that of a person's. Examples include Asimo from Honda and Atlas from Boston Dynamics.

  8. Industrial Robots: These robots perform repetitive tasks in manufacturing. Examples include the Unimate, Kuka's Titan, and Omron's Quattro.

  9. Medical Robots: These are designed to assist in hospitals, clinics, and rehabilitation centers. Examples include the da Vinci surgical system and the robotic wheelchair iBot.

  10. Research Robots: These are experimental machines used primarily for research purposes.

  11. Service Robots: These robots perform tasks like cleaning, greeting visitors, or making deliveries in offices, airports, museums, and shopping malls.

  12. Security Robots: These include mobile systems that patrol offices and other private property, such as Cobalt.

  13. Autonomous Mobile Robots (AMRs): These robots move throughout the world and make decisions in near real-time. They use technologies such as sensors and cameras to ingest information about their surroundings.

  14. Automated Guided Vehicles (AGVs): These robots rely on tracks or predefined paths and often require operator oversight. They are commonly used in warehouses and factory floors.

  15. Articulated Robots: These robots emulate the functions of a human arm and are ideal for arc welding, material handling, machine tending, and packaging.

  16. Cobots: These robots are designed to function alongside or directly with humans. They are often used to eliminate manual, dangerous, or strenuous tasks from day-to-day workflows.

  17. Hybrids: These are combinations of various types of robots to create solutions capable of more complex tasks.

  18. 6 Degree of Freedom Industrial Manipulator: These have 6 active joints, usually rotational, and can be applied to a vast range of tasks.

  19. SCARA Robot: These are often used for detailed tasks like assembly, pick and place, and engraving.

  20. Delta Robot: These are often used for high-speed pick and place tasks.

  21. Palletizing Robot: These robots are categorized by their core application area — palletizing.

  22. Redundant Manipulator: These are robots with more degrees of freedom than needed for a given task.

  23. Collaborative Robot (Cobot): These are designed to operate safely around human workers without needing extra sensing or safety measures.

  24. Gantry Robot: These are another type of industrial robot.

These categories are not mutually exclusive, and many robots can fit into multiple categories. For example, a humanoid robot could also be considered a service robot if it is used to perform tasks like cleaning or greeting visitors. Similarly, a robot could be both an AMR and a cobot if it is mobile and designed to work alongside humans.

What are the components of a robot?

A robot is composed of several key components that allow it to interact with its environment and perform tasks. Here are the main components:

  1. Central Processing Unit (CPU): The CPU acts as the "brain" of the robot, providing feedback to outside stimuli. It takes in environmental data using sensors and then calls on its programming to perform the appropriate action.

  2. Sensors: Sensors act as the eyes and ears of the robot, helping it take in information about its surroundings. These include light sensors, sound sensors, temperature sensors, contact sensors, proximity sensors, distance sensors, pressure sensors, and positioning sensors. Some robots also use vision sensors, which function like eyes, and proprioceptive sensors, which monitor a robot's internal factors like heat, electric current, and battery life.

  3. Actuators: Actuators function like muscles, facilitating movement. They are small motors attached directly to the structure of the machine. Common types include hydraulic, pneumatic, and electric actuators.

  4. End-Effectors: These are the tools aboard the robot that perform the actual work and interact with the environment or a workpiece. Examples include welding torches, screwdrivers, rivet guns, paint sprayers, manipulators, and grippers.

  5. Control System: The control system of a robot is equivalent to the central nervous system of a human. It coordinates and controls all aspects of the robot. Sensors provide feedback based on the robot's surroundings, which is then sent to the CPU. The CPU filters this information through the robot's programming and makes decisions based on logic.

  6. Body/Frame: The body or frame provides the structure of the robot. It can be of any shape and size, typically designed more for function than appearance.

  7. Manipulators: These are not integral to a robot, but many robots require them to interact with their environment and the world around them. They are used to move or reorient objects from their environments without direct contact by human operators.

  8. Drivetrain: This is a powered method of mobility. Humanoid style robots use legs, while most other robots will use some sort of wheeled solution.

  9. Power Supply: The working power to the robot is provided by batteries, hydraulic, solar power, or pneumatic.

  10. Programming: While not a physical component, a robot's programming is an essential part of the whole. It provides the logic that drives the robot's behaviors.

Each of these components plays a crucial role in the functionality of a robot, allowing it to perform tasks autonomously and interact with its environment effectively.

How do robots work?

Robots work by integrating hardware and software components to interact with their environment, perform tasks, and make decisions. The hardware components of a robot typically include a physical structure (which could be a humanoid form, a wheeled platform, or an arm), motors for movement, sensors for data collection, and a power source. The physical structure is designed based on the robot's intended function and is often made of materials like metal or plastic. Motors, which can be of various types like DC motors, AC motors, stepping motors, or servomotors, enable the robot to move and perform actions. Sensors, such as cameras, microphones, pressure sensors, and position sensors, collect data about the robot's environment, which is then processed by the robot's computer system.

The software component of a robot controls its operations. This software can be hard-wired and unchangeable, or it can be updated or upgraded remotely. In some cases, the software can be modified or developed from scratch, especially for general-purpose robots. The software includes algorithms for tasks like trajectory planning and joint servo control. Advanced robots may also use artificial intelligence (AI) algorithms for tasks like natural language processing, speech recognition, and predictive maintenance.

Robots operate based on a set of instructions defined by their software. These instructions guide the robot's actions in response to the data collected by its sensors. For example, a robot might use its sensors to detect an object in its path and then use its software instructions to decide how to navigate around the object.

In some applications, such as robotic surgery, robots are controlled by a human operator. The operator uses a computer console to control the robot's movements, allowing for precise, flexible, and controlled operations. This type of robot often includes a camera and mechanical arms with surgical instruments attached.

In the field of industrial robotics, the control system is key to coordinating the actions of the robot and its equipment. This system is generally composed of two parts: the control of the robot's own motion and the coordinated control of the robot and peripheral equipment. The control system of an industrial robot is a multivariable control system closely related to kinematics and dynamics.

In summary, robots work by integrating physical components and control systems to interact with their environment, perform tasks, and make decisions. The specific design and functionality of a robot depend on its intended application.

What are the applications of robots?

Robots have a wide range of applications across various industries due to their precision, convenience, and ability to perform tasks that may be monotonous, dangerous, or difficult for humans. Here are some key applications of robots:

  1. Security: Robots can assist in handling crimes such as armed robberies, burglaries, domestic violence, fraud, and hit-and-runs.

  2. Space Exploration: Robots, like the Mars Rover, are used for tasks that are dangerous for humans, such as collecting soil samples on Mars or repairing spaceships in deep space.

  3. Entertainment: Theme parks like Disney World use autonomous robots to enhance customer experiences.

  4. Agriculture: Robots perform repetitive tasks such as seeding, weed control, and harvesting. For instance, the Ecorobotix is used to remove weeds in farms.

  5. Health Care: Robots assist doctors in performing operations more precisely, provide therapy to patients, and can be used as prosthetic limbs. The da Vinci robot, for example, assists surgeons in performing complex surgeries.

  6. Underwater Exploration: Robots are used to explore places that are difficult for humans to reach, such as the depths of the ocean.

  7. Industrial Applications: Robots are used for tasks like arc welding, machine tending, painting, picking, packing, palletizing, assembly, and mechanical cutting in industries.

  8. Military: Robots are used for surveillance, attacking opposing forces, and providing medical aid to friendly forces.

  9. Customer Service: Robots like Nadine and Junko Chihira are used in customer service roles, recognizing people from previous visits, making eye contact, shaking hands, and continuing conversations based on previous meetings.

  10. Retail: Autonomous robots like Badger Technologies' robot are used in grocery stores to improve store operations by scanning floors for hazardous conditions and keeping stock on missing, mispriced, or misplaced inventory.

  11. Transportation: Self-driving cars, drones, and autonomous vehicles are examples of robotics applications in transportation.

  12. Construction: Robots are used to automate tasks such as bricklaying and concrete pouring.

  13. Artificial Intelligence (AI): Robotics uses AI techniques to enable robots to perceive and understand their environment, make decisions, and carry out tasks autonomously. This includes computer vision, natural language processing (NLP), machine learning, and motion planning.

These are just a few examples of the many ways that robotics technology is being used to improve efficiency, reduce costs, and enhance the quality of life across a wide range of industries.

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