We are sponsoring the Imperial College Robotics Society entry for Eurobot 2016/2017, and with this in mind, we have decided to reflect on the history of robotics and the impact that their introduction has had on the world.
Robotics play a huge role in our everyday lives, much larger than most of us even realise. And although robots are often thought of as a fairly new innovation, we’ve been living and working alongside them in harmony for over 50 years.
People still talk about the rise of robotics as if it is yet to become a reality, but we’re already becoming very dependent on robotics to assist usin our everyday lives. However, exciting ideas and concepts are being brought to life every day through robotics, and it is here that we see our business – at the forefront of cutting-edge robotic technology and helping to introduce it to the UK market.
The idea that we’ve been living and working alongside robots for over 50 years might sound ludicrous and surprising, but this is probably more due to what our idea of a robot is. We tend to think of the classic android – shaped like a human and able to walk and talk – whereas the robots that we encounter in our everyday lives tend to be far less sci-fi and far more practically designed.
According to the Robot Institute of America, a robot is:
“A reprogrammable, multifunctional manipulator designed to move material, parts, tools, or specialized devices through various programmed motions for the performance of a variety of tasks”.
An even simpler definition can be found on Webster:
“An automatic device that performs functions normally ascribed to humans or a machine in the form of a human.”
It is no wonder that our idea of what a robot is tends to be slightly skewed when we consider the origins of the word itself. It came from the older brother of a Czech playwright called Kapek (although Kapek is often credited for it) ,who referred to chemically designed machines as ‘robots’ in his play titled’Rossum’s Universal Robots(R.U.R)’.
The word robot didn’t really enter our vocabulary until Isaac Asimov wrote a series of books about the subject, including the celebrated ‘i, Robot’, which also introduced the word ‘robotics’.
Until this point, most mentions of robots were within stories of dystopian futures, and the idea that they could be a reality probably terrified most people who read Asimov’s work. But for a select few, the commercial potential of robots was clear to see.
One such example being, Devol and Engelberger, 2 influential entrepreneurs in the engineering industry, who met in 1956 for a cup of coffee. The purpose of their meeting was to discuss the works of Isaac Asimov, and to find out a way to bringhis vision of robots to life.
Engelberger started a manufacturing company called ‘Unimation’, which was the first commercial company to produce robots. This has resulted in him being dubbed ‘the father of robotics’. The first robot that the company produced (the ‘Unimate’) was quickly installed at a General Motors plant to assist with extracting die castings from die casting machines and to perform spot welding on auto bodies. Not the most glamorous work perhaps, but the Unimate had proven a point – that robots could be used to perform tasks which humans would prefer not to perform.
The Unimate was a commercial success; it performed reliably and saved money by replacing human workers. It wasn’t long before robots were being trusted with more challenging work, such as loading and unloading machine tools. Unimation was eventually bought over, and the 2 founding entrepreneurs were made very wealthy!
Robotics became very fashionable in business, and even companies who wouldn’t really benefit from robotics in their businesses were installing machines, purely to make themselves seem relevant.
Fortunately, businesses now use robotics for far more practical reasons than showing off.
Modern industrial arms have increased in capability and performance through controller and language development, improved mechanisms, sensing, and drive systems.
The robots that you’ll find in use across the world do not resemble the romantic android concept of robots imagined by Assimov and Capek. They are far less humanoid and far more practically designed. This is perhaps why they have managed to integrate so seamlessly into our society. Industrial robots are so different to what we would imagine that many people would not even recognise them as robots!
Fully functioning androids are still many years away as we continue to overcome the many hurdles that we face in trying to make them a reality. The truth is that in many cases, a robot can perform work more effectively if it is designed to be sleek and modern, and there have been countless examples of the android design not being optimal for carrying out work. It can be argued that our persistence in trying to introduce android robots into our world stems from our obsession with the romantic idea of it rather than the practicality of it.
The introduction of robotics into the world is often seen as a negative thing, but the reality couldn’t be further from the truth. Many will claim that the introduction of robots across a variety of industries has resulted in the loss of jobs, and although this is true it is important to remember what types of jobs are being replaced. They are generally dangerous, dirty, high risk and monotonous. It is certainly true that robots can cause unemployment, but they also create jobs; robot technicians, salesmen, engineers, programmers and supervisors are all required to ensure safety and efficiency.
This being said, there is a need for serious consideration and contemplation when moving towards Superintelligent AI. This Ted Talk by Sam Harris, titled ‘Can we build AI without losing control over it?’, asks a few pertinent questions and is worth a watch:
The benefits of introducing robotics are well documented – they can work relentlessly day and night, whilst maintaining a consistent level of quality and productivity. This has changed the way that many modern businesses operate, as assembly lines can keep running without loss in performance.
Robots can greatly reduce the costs of manufactured goods, and businesses and companies that use robots in their industries will always have an economic advantage over those who don’t.
We’re excited to be a part of this growing industry, and hope to be involved with more robotics projects in 2017!
For more information about our work with robotics, please contact us here.
Update On Eurobot!
Tom from Imperial College sent us an update on what students have been working on over the past term:
“With the end of term approaching, it is time to review our work on Eurobot. It has been around month and a half since we gathered the team and started working on the project. Currently we have a substantial team of 10-12 people who are all very excited about the project and have been doing amazing work. We have divided into 3 subteams – Computing, Electronics and Mechanics, each responsible for the relevant system on the robot.
This year’s Eurobot challenge is called Moon Village. There are three separate mini-challenges that the robot can tackle to get more points. They are all related to the kind of work that a robot which has just landed on the moon should be able to perform. After careful examination of the Eurobot rules, we have decided to first focus on the mini-challenge that requires us to build a lunar base. The action consists of collecting the so-called lunar modules, which are located inside rockets, and building very simple structures out of them. As there is a significant time limitation during the actual competition, we have been designing our robot with the goal to be able to simultaneously collect and operate with several lunar modules. Although this complicates the design a bit, our estimate is that it will result in substantially better performance at the competition. The mechanics team has been designing this mechanism which is supposed to help us achieve this goal. Simultaneously, our electronics team has been helping by picking the right motors and making sure we can properly control the mechanism.
Another problem our electronics team has been tackling is related to the moving speed of our robot. As our goal is to be very fast, we have decided to use ODrive – a board developed by an ICRS alumni – that gives us very precise control over brushless DC motors that can move very quickly and can generate a high torque.
Our computing team has been occupied with the task of empowering the robot to localize itself precisely on the arena, For this reason we have decided to use custom-made ultrasonic beacons. As the arena does not have walls that can help the ultrasonic sensors get stable readings, we have approached the problem by simulating artificial signals that model what an ultrasonic sensor would read have there been walls on the arena. The idea is that we put our beacons in the corners of the arena and generate ultrasonic waves which are read by the robot in order to estimate its position.
Our plan for the future is to have a robot prototype by the end of January and begin testing at that point. For this reason we are also building a precise copy of the actual arena that the robot will be working on.”
Exciting stuff! We’re looking forward to more updates in the near future.