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A Crash Course on Robotics

Meet all the various kinds of robots that have one thing in common: Captcha hates them!

Photo by Alex Knight on Unsplash

Received your Prime delivery package before time? Amazon is able to provide this service only with the use of robots in its supply chain, which offer a significant reduction in time frames. The world economy has been embracing the role of robots for a long time now. And, with the coronavirus affecting excessive damage around the world, robots will indeed help us to ensure minimum contact across various industries.

Robots are becoming advanced with the day with the use of faster hardware and more intuitive software. But that surely does not mean that a T1 terminator riddled battlefield is considered any less outlandish than before 😏. Various elements have achieved this advancement. For example, Robot Operating Software (ROS) had its first public release in 2010 and has come a long way due to open source contributions and is now essential in the development of quite a few robots. In terms of hardware, we now have highly capable processors with extreme computing power to tackle real-time situations.

According to Robot Institute of America, a robot is defined as a reprogrammable, multifunctional manipulator designed to move material, parts, tools or specialized devices through variable programmed motions for the performance of a variety of tasks. However, I would define them as our future robot overlords. I’m kidding. Or am I?

Ok, let’s delve a bit deeper.


Types of Robots

  • Manipulator: These are industrial devices that are used to operate hazardous material and work without direct physical contact from the operator. An apt example is the Dum-E robot arm from Iron Man I. It is also definitely irrelevant to this write-up, to remember that being into comics was not cool in 2008 🙂.

  • Legged Robots and Wheeled Robots: These robots are mainly used in the land domain. Wheeled robots use motorized wheels to navigate themselves on the ground, whereas legged robots use motorized limbs to propel themselves. Legged robots are more versatile and can travel in uneven terrain; however, this efficiency comes at the cost of complexity. A lot of research is being conducted into making legged robots more feasible.

StarlETH- Dynamic Quadruped Locomotion (Developed at ETH Zurich)
A typical Wheeled Robot
  • Autonomous Underwater vehicle: These robots can travel underwater and to great depths without any additional support from the operator. AUVs have substantial commercial applications in the oil and gas industry to study the seafloor before investing billions of dollars in drilling. Scientists often use AUVs to perform research on lakes and oceans, although that research rarely reveals anything positive about the state of our planet 😐.

Sea Squirt, 1988, MIT Sea Grant Autonomous Underwater Vehicle Laboratory — MIT Museum.
  • Drones are robots that operate in the aerial domain. A UAV is defined as a “powered, aerial vehicle that does not carry a human operator, uses aerodynamic forces to provide vehicle lift, can fly autonomously or be piloted remotely, can be expendable or recoverable, and can carry a lethal or nonlethal payload”. There is a massive industry for drones. Due to its military applications, it has received a lot of flak in terms of regulatory usage. Commercial applications include shipping companies who have started experimenting with drone deliveries.

A typical UAV. Photo by Diana Măceşanu on Unsplash.

Key components of a robot:

  1. Power Source: Designing a viable power source is extremely necessary for a functional robot. Batteries are the most common source of energy for robots. There is a lot of research to make renewable energy sources viable for robots.

  2. Actuator: It is an electromagnetic device that can convert energy (or control signals) into mechanical work. This mechanical work can be either in the form of a force or velocity. It can also involve various transmissions between linear and rotatory motion. There are different types of actuators: A) Pneumatic actuator: It is a mechanical device that uses air pressure and a piston to provide for linear or rotatory motion. B) Hydraulic actuator: It consists of a fluid motor which provides linear, rotatory, or oscillatory motion by using hydraulic power. It can provide a large force due to fluid’s incompressible nature but with limited acceleration. C) Piezoelectric actuator: Piezo materials are unique materials which undergo mechanical stress when current passes through them to provide accurate movement.

  3. Mechanical linkages: These consist of the robotic arms and limbs which perform the motion specified by the controller. The joints can be sliding or rotatory.

  4. Sensors: Robots need constant updates of their location, surroundings, and other factors affecting the decisions of the operator to perform every single task. This continuous update protocol is not unlike Gen Z and our relationship with social media except in our case, it’s completely useless. • Vision sensors: These sensors can vary according to their function. For example, cameras provide pictures of the environment while SONAR systems can help detect obstacles and distances between the robot and the objects. It is difficult to ignore the analogy of social media affecting us with “monkey see, monkey do”.Force sensors: These sensors are used to measure forces exerted upon actuators.Tilt sensors: These are used to provide balance to robots

  5. Controller: This is the brain of the robot. The operator, if any, feeds commands into the controller via a user interface. The controller processes these commands along with the information provided by sensors to send control signal inputs to the actuators to perform the necessary action. Necessary components include computational hardware (CPU), storage, and interface hardware( Op-amps, etc.).

  6. Power Conversion Unit: This component converts low power signals and converts them to a high power signal to drive the actuators.


Applications of robots:

  • Industry: The use of robots has revolutionized car manufacturing. The amount of time to create a car has reduced dramatically, thereby increasing the throughput of a single factory. Car manufacturers like Tesla have almost completely automated the process. We have managed to automate every repetitive process, thus freeing up engineers to innovate rather than spend time at the workstation.

Hyundai car plant in Chennai
  • Medical Robots: Surgical robots can be used to perform delicate surgeries with pinpoint accuracies. Ebola is being fought with disinfection robots. It has also been proven that surgical robots enable higher precision and faster recovery times.

3D rendering surgery room with robotic surgery and empty bed
  • Military: There is no limitation to the application of robots in the military. Drones have already been used as aerial strike options. Robots are being used to diffuse bombs located in uncertain locations. There are split opinions on the military applications of robots. However, it is crucial to understand that this is the future of warfare, and a lot of military warfare already takes place with the help of robots. For example, most fighter jets are enabled with high precision systems to strike their targets.

The U.S. Army Is Turning to Robot Soldiers- Bloomberg
  • Agriculture: Robots have been used to create smart irrigation systems to reduce inefficiency in the process of agriculture. Certain crops require extensive monitoring to avoid spoiling. Robots are filling this void by taking over the tedious process, thereby allowing farmers to focus on other aspects of their farm. There was a project at TU Delft University that involved growing tomatoes remotely, i.e. without any human intervention only by the use of sensors and AI models.

  • Self-driving cars: There are various opinions regarding this application. However, there’s no changing the fact that most road accidents happen due to human error. Some of the prototypes involve expensive equipment and may not be feasible, but there’s exciting research going on, to integrate the software with cheaper alternatives.

As robotics researchers at Sally, we wish to take this challenge head-on and develop an AI model based on the spatial cognitive abilities of the Indian driver, which can indeed make vehicles demonstrate autonomous capabilities on highly unstructured Indian roads.

The Sally Robotics Car, being developed for AI-assisted Autonomous Driving capability

Future Trends:

• Robots are going to become smarter with the use of artificial intelligence and its various techniques. Reinforcement learning has been pegged as the next big thing in AI, and its applications in robotics are enormous. There is a large amount of research being pursued in this field. However, machine learning scientists have criticized the algorithm’s inability to transfer the logic acquired to open-ended problems. In my opinion, humans have not fared any better in the many issues we are facing today. • The data handled by robots is going to be essential in unlocking their potential. A few companies have already started using big data analytics to optimize the manufacturing floors. • Collaborative robots, aka Cobots, will become common, i.e. workers being assisted by robots in response to active situations. • Internet of Things(IoT) will be present in every part of our life. Every appliance will become “smart” putting into question the idea of privacy. Personal conversations at home might be the next targeted ad you see online. Alexa and Siri will soon be taking care of all your needs without you saying it. • Although Amazon leads in the digitization of the supply chain, it is estimated that less than 15% of warehouses in the United States are automated. The natural direction post this pandemic would be to digitize and automate contact-based processes, thereby, opening the doors for further innovation in the supply chain domain of robotics.

Sources:

[1] http://engineering.nyu.edu/mechatronics/smart/Archive/intro_to_rob/Intro2Robotics.pdf

[2] https://www.ros.org/history/

[3] https://www.mayoclinichealthsystem.org/hometown-health/featured-topic/robotic-surgery-shortens-recovery-time-for-patients

[4] https://roboticsandautomationnews.com/2016/07/14/the-wheel-robot-intelligent-modular-actuator-concept/6132/

[5] https://asl.ethz.ch/research/legged-robots.html

[6] https://www.ecagroup.com/en/solutions/a9-m-auv-autonomous-underwater-vehicle

[7] https://www.forbes.com/sites/jonmarkman/2019/08/30/early-focus-on-surgical-robotics-gives-stryker-a-leg-up/#121f6fd82948

[8] https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2018-05-18/the-u-s-army-is-turning-to-robot-soldiers


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