Saturday, March 15, 2008



The Shadow robot hand system holding a lightbulb.

Robotics Portal

Robotics is the science and technology of robots, their design, manufacture, and application.[1] Robotics requires a working knowledge of electronics, mechanics and software, and is usually accompanied by a large working knowledge of many subjects.[2] A person working in the field is a roboticist.

Although the appearance and capabilities of robots vary vastly, all robots share the features of a mechanical, movable structure under some form of autonomous control. The structure of a robot is usually mostly mechanical and can be called a kinematic chain (its functionality being akin to the skeleton of the human body). The chain is formed of links (its bones), actuators (its muscles) and joints which can allow one or more degrees of freedom. Most contemporary robots use open serial chains in which each link connects the one before to the one after it. These robots are called serial robots and often resemble the human arm. Some robots, such as the Stewart platform, use closed parallel kinematic chains. Other structures, such as those that mimic the mechanical structure of humans, various animals and insects, are comparatively rare. However, the development and use of such structures in robots is an active area of research (e.g. biomechanics). Robots used as manipulators have an end effector mounted on the last link. This end effector can be anything from a welding device to a mechanical hand used to manipulate the environment.


The word robotics was first used in print by Isaac Asimov, in his science fiction short story "Runaround", published in March 1942 in Astounding Science Fiction.[3] While it was based on the word "robot" coined by science fiction author Karel ńĆapek, Asimov was unaware that he was coining a new term. The design of electrical devices is called electronics, so the design of robots is called robotics.[4] Before the coining of the term, however, there was interest in ideas similar to robotics (namely automata and androids) dating as far back as the 8th or 7th century BC. In the Iliad, the god Hephaestus made talking handmaidens out of gold.[5] Archytas of Tarentum is credited with creating a mechanical Pigeon in 400 BC.[6] Robots are used in industrial, military, exploration, home making, and academic and research applications.[7]

Components of robots


A robot leg, powered by Air Muscles.

The actuators are the 'muscles' of a robot; the parts which convert stored energy into movement. By far the most popular actuators are electric motors, but there are many others, some of which are powered by electricity, while others use chemicals, or compressed air.

  • Motors: By far the vast majority of robots use electric motors, of which there are several kinds. DC motors, which are familiar to many people, spin rapidly when an electric current is passed through them. They will spin backwards if the current is made to flow in the other direction.
  • Stepper Motors: As the name suggests, stepper motors do not spin freely like DC motors, they rotate in steps of a few degrees at a time, under the command of a controller. This makes them easier to control, as the controller knows exactly how far they have rotated, without having to use a sensor. Therefore they are used on many robots and CNC machining centres.
  • Piezo Motors: A recent alternative to DC motors are piezo motors, also known as ultrasonic motors. These work on a fundamentally different principle, whereby tiny piezoceramic legs, vibrating many thousands of times per second, walk the motor round in a circle or a straight line.[8] The advantages of these motors are incredible nanometre resolution, speed and available force for their size.[9] These motors are already available commercially, and being used on some robots.[10][11]
  • Air Muscles: The air muscle is a simple yet powerful device for providing a pulling force. When inflated with compressed air, it contracts by up to 40% of its original length. The key to its behaviour is the braiding visible around the outside, which forces the muscle to be either long and thin, or short and fat. Since it behaves in a very similar way to a biological muscle, it can be used to construct robots with a similar muscle/skeleton system to an animal.[12] For example, the Shadow robot hand uses 40 air muscles to power its 24 joints.
  • Electroactive Polymers: These are a class of plastics which change shape in response to electrical stimulation.[13] They can be designed so that they bend, stretch or contract, but so far there are no EAPs suitable for commercial robots, as they tend to have low efficiency or are not robust.[14] Indeed, all of the entrants in a recent competition to build EAP powered arm wrestling robots, were beaten by a 17 year old girl.[15] However, they are expected to improve in the future, where they may be useful for microrobotic applications.[16]
  • Elastic nanotubes are a promising, early-stage experimental technology. The absence of defects in nanotubes enables these filaments to deform elastically by several percent, with energy storage levels of perhaps 10J per cu. cm for metal nanotubes. Human biceps could be replaced with an 8mm diameter wire of this material. Such compact "muscle" might allow future robots to outrun and outjump humans. [17]


Robots which must work in the real world require some way to manipulate objects; pick up, modify, destroy or otherwise have an effect. Thus the 'hands' of a robot are often referred to as end effectors[18], while the arm is referred to as a manipulator.[19] Most robot arms have replacable effectors, each allowing them to perform some small range of tasks. Some have a fixed manipulator which cannot be replaced, while a few have one very general purpose manipulator, for example a humanoid hand.

A simple gripper
  • Grippers: A common effector is the gripper. In its simplest manifestation it consists of just two fingers which can open and close to pick up and let go of a range of small objects. See End effectors [1].
  • Vacuum Grippers: Pick and place robots for electronic components and for large objects like car windscreens, will often use very simple vacuum grippers. These are very simple astrictive devices, but can hold very large loads provided the prehension surface is smooth enough to ensure suction.
  • General purpose effectors: Some advanced robots are beginning to use fully humanoid hands, like the Shadow Hand (right), or the Schunk hand.[20] These highly dexterous manipulators, with as many as 20 degrees of freedom and hundreds of tactile sensors[21] can be difficult to control. The computer must consider a great deal of information, and decide on the best way to manipulate an object from many possibilities.

For the definitive guide to all forms of robot endeffectors, their design and usage consult the book "Robot Grippers" [22].


Rolling Robots

Segway in the Robot museum in Nagoya.

For simplicity, most mobile robots have four wheels. However, some researchers have tried to create more complex wheeled robots, with only one or two wheels.

  • Two-wheeled balancing: While the Segway is not commonly thought of as a robot, it can be thought of as a component of a robot. Several real robots do use a similar dynamic balancing algorithm, and NASA's Robonaut has been mounted on a Segway.[23]
  • Ballbot: Carnegie Mellon University researchers have developed a new type of mobile robot that balances on a ball instead of legs or wheels. "Ballbot" is a self-contained, battery-operated, omnidirectional robot that balances dynamically on a single urethane-coated metal sphere. It weighs 95 pounds and is the approximate height and width of a person. Because of its long, thin shape and ability to maneuver in tight spaces, it has the potential to function better than current robots can in environments with people.[24]
  • Track Robot: Another type of rolling robot is one that has tracks, like NASA's Urban Robot, Urbie. [25]

Walking Robots

iCub robot, designed by the RobotCub Consortium
Walking is a difficult and dynamic problem to solve. Several robots have been made which can walk reliably on two legs, however none have yet been made which are as robust as a human. Typically, these robots can walk well on flat floors, and can occasionally walk up stairs. None can walk over rocky, uneven terrain. Some of the methods which have been tried are:
  • Zero Moment Point (ZMP) Technique: is the algorithm used by robots such as Honda's ASIMO. The robot's onboard computer tries to keep the total inertial forces (the combination of earth's gravity and the acceleration and deceleration of walking), exactly opposed by the floor reaction force (the force of the floor pushing back on the robot's foot). In this way, the two forces cancel out, leaving no moment (force causing the robot to rotate and fall over).[26] However, this is not exactly how a human walks, and the difference is quite apparent to human observers, some of whom have pointed out that ASIMO walks as if it needs the lavatory.[27][28][29] ASIMO's walking algorithm is not static, and some dynamic balancing is used (See below). However, it still requires a smooth surface to walk on.
  • Hopping: Several robots, built in the 1980s by Marc Raibert at the MIT Leg Laboratory, successfully demonstrated very dynamic walking. Initially, a robot with only one leg, and a very small foot, could stay upright simply by hopping. The movement is the same as that of a person on a pogo stick. As the robot falls to one side, it would jump slightly in that direction, in order to catch itself.[30] Soon, the algorithm was generalised to two and four legs. A bipedal robot was demonstrated running and even performing somersaults.[31] A quadruped was also demonstrated which could trot, run, pace and bound.[32] For a full list of these robots, see the MIT Leg Lab Robots page.
  • Dynamic Balancing: A more advanced way for a robot to walk is by using a dynamic balancing algorithm, which is potentially more robust than the Zero Moment Point technique, as it constantly monitors the robot's motion, and places the feet in order to main stability.[33] This technique was recently demonstrated by Anybots' Dexter Robot,[34] which is so stable, it can even jump.[35]
  • Passive Dynamics: Perhaps the most promising approach being taken is to use the momentum of swinging limbs for greater efficiency. It has been shown that totally unpowered humanoid mechanisms can walk down a gentle slope, using only gravity to propel themselves. Using this technique, a robot need only supply a small amount of motor power to walk along a flat surface or a little more to walk up a hill. This technique promises to make walking robots at least ten times more efficient than ZMP walkers, like ASIMO.[36][37]