Beginning Of Robotics - Online Article

History of Robotics

Some historians believe the origin of ROBOTICS can be traced back to the ancient Greeks. It was around 270 BC when Ctesibus (a Greek engineer) made organs and water clocks with movable figures. Other historians believe robotics began with mechanical dolls. In the 1770s, Pierre Jacquet-Droz, a Swiss clock maker and inventor of the wristwatch, created three ingenious mechanical dolls. He made the dolls so that each one could perform a specific function: one would write, another would play music on an organ, and the third could draw a picture. As sophisticated as they were, the dolls, whose purpose was to amuse royalty, performed all their respective feats using gears, cogs, pegs, and springs. More recently, in 1898, Nikola Tesla built a radio-controlled submersible boat. This was no small feat in 1898. The submersible was demonstrated in Madison Square Garden. Although Nikola Tesla had plans to make the boat autonomous, lack of funding prevented further research.

The word "robot" was first used in a 1921 play titled R.U.R.: Rossum's Universal Robots, by Czechoslovakian writer Karel Capek. Robot is a Czech word meaning "worker." The play described mechanical servants, the "robots." When the robots were endowed with emotion, they turned on their masters and destroyed them.

Historically, we have sought to endow inanimate objects that resemble the human form with human abilities and attributes. From this is derived the word anthrobots, robots in human form. Since Karel Capek's play, robots have become a staple in many science fiction stories and movies. As robots evolved, so did the terminology needed to describe the different robotic forms. So, in addition to the old "tin-man" robot, we also have cyborgs, which are part human and part machine, and androids, which are specially built robots designed to be humanlike.

Many people had their first look at a real robot during the 1939 World's Fair. Westinghouse Electric built a robot they called Elektro the Moto Man. Although Elektro had motors and gears to moveits mouth, arms, and hands, it could not perform any useful work. It was joined on stage by a mechanical dog named Sparko.

Why build robots?

Robots are indispensable in many manufacturing industries. The reason is that the cost per hour to operate a robot is a fraction of the cost of the human labor needed to perform the same function. More than this, once programmed, robots repeatedly perform functions with a high accuracy that surpasses that of the most experienced human operator. Human operators are, however, far more versatile. Humans can switch job tasks easily. Robots are built and programmed to be job specific. You wouldn't be able to program a welding robot to start counting parts in a bin.

Today's most advanced industrial robots will soon become "dinosaurs." Robots are in the infancy stage of their evolution. As robots evolve, they will become more versatile, emulating the human capacity and ability to switch job tasks easily.

While the personal computer has made an indelible mark on society, the personal robot hasn't made an appearance. Obviously there's more to a personal robot than a personal computer. Robots require a combination of elements to be effective: sophistication of intelligence, movement, mobility, navigation, and purpose.

Purpose of Robots

In the beginning, personal robots will focus on a singular function (job task) or purpose. For instance, today there are small mobile robots that can autonomously maintain a lawn by cutting the grass. These robots are solar powered and don't require any training. Underground wires are placed around the lawn perimeter. The robots sense the wires, remain within the defined perimeter, and don't wander off.

Building a useful personal robot is very difficult.  Robot building is not restricted to Ph.D.s, professors, universities, and industrial companies. By playing and experimenting with robots you can learn many aspects of robotics: artificial intelligence, neural networks, usefulness and purpose, sensors, navigation, articulated limbs, etc. The potential is to learn first hand about robotics and possibly make a contribution to the existing body of knowledge on robotics. And to this end amateur robotists do contribute, in some cases creating a clever design that surpasses mainstream robotic development.

As the saying goes, look before you leap. The first question to ask yourself when beginning a robot design is, "What is the purpose of this robot? What will it do and how will it accomplish its task?" We will provide the necessary information about circuits, sensors, drive systems, neural nets, and microcontrollers in forecoming articles to build a robot. But before we begin, let's first look at a few current applications and how robots may be used in the future. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the U.S. military build the most sophisticated robots. NASA's main interest in robotics involves (couldn't you guess) space exploration and telepresence. The military on the other hand utilizes the technology in warfare.


NASA routinely sends unmanned robotic explorers where it is impossible to send human explorers. Why send robots instead of humans? In a word, economics. It's much cheaper to send an expendable robot than a human. Humans require an enormous support system to travel into space: breathable atmosphere, food, heat, and living quarters. And, quite frankly, most humans would want to live through the experience and return to Earth in their lifetime.

Explorer spacecraft travel through the solar system where their electronic eyes transmit back to Earth fascinating pictures of the planets and their moons. The Viking probes sent to Mars looked for life and sent back pictures of the Martian landscape. NASA is developing planetary rovers, space probes, spider-legged walking explorers, and underwater rovers. NASA has the most advanced telerobotic program in the world, operating under the Office of Space Access and Technology (OSAT)4. Robotic space probes launched from Earth have provided spectacular views of our neighboring planets in the solar system. And in this era of tightening budgets, robotic explorers provide the best value for the taxpayer dollar. Robotic explorer systems can be built and implemented for a fraction of the cost of manned flights. Let's examine one case. The Mars Pathfinder represents a new generation of small, low-cost spacecraft and explorers.

Mars Pathfinder (Sojourner)

The Mars Pathfinder consists of a lander and rover . It was launched from Earth in December of 1996 on board a McDonnell Douglas Delta II rocket and began its journey to Mars. It arrived on Mars on July 4, 1997. The Pathfinder did not go into orbit around Mars; instead it flew directly into Mars's atmosphere at 17,000 miles per hour (mph) [27,000 kilometers per hour (km/h) or 7.6 kilometers per second (km/s)]. To prevent Pathfinder from burning up in the atmosphere, a combination of a heat shield, parachute, rockets, and airbags was used. Although the landing was cushioned with airbags, Pathfinder decelerated at 40 gravities (Gs).

Pathfinder landed in an area known as Ares Vallis. This site is at the mouth of an ancient outflow channel where potentially a large variety of rocks are within reach of the rover. The rocks would have settled there, being washed down from the highlands, at a time when there were floods on Mars. The Pathfinder craft opened up after landing on Mars (see Fig. below) and released the robotic rover.


Mars Pathfinder. Photo courtesy of NASA

The rover on Pathfinder is called Sojourner . Sojourner is a new class of small robotic explorers, sometimes called microrovers. It is small, with a weight of 22 pounds (lb) [10.5 kilograms (kg)], height of 280 millimeters (mm) (10.9″), length of 630 mm (24.5″), and width of 480 mm (18.7″). The rover has a unique sixwheel (Rocker-Bogie) drive system developed by Jet Propulsion Laboratories5 (JPL) in the late 1980s. The main power for Sojourner is provided by a solar panel made up of over 200 solar cells. Power output from the solar array is about 16 watts (W). Sojourner began exploring the surface of Mars in July 1997. Previously this robot was known as Rocky IV. The development of this microrover robot went through several stages and prototypes including Rocky I through Rocky IV.

Both the Pathfinder lander and rover have stereo imaging systems. The rover carries an alpha proton X-ray spectrometer6 that is used to determine the composition of rocks. The lander made atmospherical and meteorological observations and was the radio relay station to Earth for information and pictures transmitted by the rover.


Sojourner Rover. Photo courtesy of NASA

Mission Objectives

The Sojourner rover itself was an experiment. Performance data from Sojourner determined that microrover explorers are cost efficient and useful. In addition to the science that has already been discussed, the following tasks were also performed:

  • Long-range and short-range imaging of the surface of Mars
  • Analysis of soil mechanics
  • Tracking Mars dead-reckoning sensor performance
  • Measuring sinkage in Martian soil
  • Logging vehicle performance data
  • Determining the rover's thermal characteristics
  • Tracking rover imaging sensor performance
  • Determining UHF link effectiveness
  • Analysis of material abrasion
  • Analysis of material adherence
  • Evaluating the alpha proton X-ray spectrometer
  • Evaluating the APXS deployment mechanism
  • Imaging of the lander

Performing damage assessment Sojourner was controlled (driven) via telepresence by an Earthbased operator. The operator navigated (drove) the rover using images obtained from the rover and lander. Because the time delay between the Earth operator's actions and the rover's response was between 6 and 41 minutes depending on the relative positions of Earth and Mars, Sojourner had onboard intelligence to help prevent accidents, like driving off a cliff.

NASA is continuing development of microrobotic rovers. Small robotic land rovers with intelligence added for onboard navigation, obstacle avoidance, and decision making are planned for future Mars exploration. These robotic systems provide the best value per taxpayer dollar. The latest microrover currently being planned for the next Mars expedition will again check for life. On August 7, 1996, NASA released a statement that it believed it had found fossilized microscopic life on Mars. This information has renewed interest in searching for life on Mars.

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Chandra Bhushan on 2009-03-07 03:01:08 wrote,

This article will just give a glimpse of history of robots in a precise manner..........Nice