history of robotics

The world of robotics

Part 1 – What was and what is

When we think of the words “robot” or “robotics”, we probably conjure up various images and thoughts about technology. A fun fact is that those words were actually introduced into modern language by authors, not by engineers! Let’s take a quick stroll through the history of robotics, how quickly they evolved from a figment of a writer’s imagination into world-changing technology, and what we should expect next.

By: Luc Vanden Abeele, Robotics Industry Specialist and Intellectual Property Manager

Robots: the stuff of science fiction

Robots: the stuff of science fiction

The word “robot” was introduced by Czech author and playwright, Karel Čapek in 1920. It was inspired from the word robota which meant “servitude” and “forced labor”. In Čapek’s imaginary world of science fiction, his robots were humanoids that would perform tasks humans didn’t want to do.

Another author, Isaac Asimov, also had a major impact when he introduced the word “robotics” in 1941 in a story called “Liar”, and established the Three Laws of Robotics in 1942, stating in his first law that robots cannot harm humans.

Robots: From imagination to materialization

The major technological developments leading to the first ‘real’ robots were performed in the 1950s. The first robot that actually did something useful was Unimate #001, installed in a General Motors die casting facility in 1962. That hydraulic powered, articulated robotic arm weighed 4,000 pounds. That was almost 60 years ago!

For many years, robots evolved as new technologies were developed, but were primarily doing the same tasks: blindly performing material handling or welding applications, mainly for the automotive and electronics industries. We have to wait another quarter century until the late 1990s before seeing the first industrial applications where robots were adapting their paths according to the changing conditions of the parts, thanks to vision guidance and force/torque sensing. One great example is the robot cutting spare ribs from pork bellies. Without any vision system, this would be impossible because each pork belly is different.

Since then, we’ve seen numerous advances in electronics, computer sciences, machine vision and artificial intelligence, to name a few technologies. As mentioned earlier, the automotive industry led the way in adopting  industrial robots. Even if this industry is still a top user, the robotic landscape today is completely different, and it should be noted that it doesn’t include humanoid robots replacing humans in factories, as imagined by Čapek almost 100 years ago. With many other industries since adopting industrial robotics, a new breed of robots got significant traction in the past dozen years: service robots.

The three main types of modern robots

The International Federation of Robotics classifies the most common categories of robots dominating business and assistive care as follows: industrial robots, professional service robots and personal service robots:

  1. Industrial robots are automatically controlled, reprogrammable, multipurpose manipulator programmable in three or more axes, which can be either fixed in place or mobile for use in industrial automation applications.
  2. A professional service robot is a service robot used for a commercial task, usually operated by a properly trained operator. Examples are cleaning robots for public places, delivery robots in offices or hospitals, fire-fighting robots, rehabilitation robots and surgery robots in hospitals.
  3. A personal service robot is used for a non-commercial task, usually by lay persons. Examples are domestic servant robot, automated wheelchair, and personal mobility assist robot.

The line that separates industrial robots from professional service robots isn’t always clearly defined. Practically, industrial robots are found in manufacturing facilities while professional service robots are used in roughly all other industries (medical, logistics, agriculture, etc.). Because of the kinds of tasks they perform, service robots are generally equipped with numerous sensors because they have to adapt to exterior changing conditions.

Personal service robots for assistive care were also introduced back in 1963 with the Rancho Arm, developed by the Rancho Los Amigos Hospital in Downey, California, the original purpose of this arm was as a tool to help people with physical disabilities.

Industrial robots are found in manufacturing facilities, professional service robots are used in most other industries (medical, logistics, agriculture, etc.).

A robot is technology that empowers and enables humans to achieve more, for businesses to run more efficiently, boost employee productivity and accelerate growth.

Robots get more mobile and more intelligent

Another important milestone in robotics was the introduction of Shakey in 1970. It was the first mobile robot platform that had some ‘reasoning’ capabilities and therefore incorporated some very basic artificial intelligence. In order to move somewhat autonomously, this robot had sonars, collision detectors and a television camera. It could turn light switches on and off, open doors and push objects. It was of course a prototype and was never commercialized, but it paved the way to a new breed of mobile robots.

The medical industry—an industry that continues to make great strides in acceptance and accessibility of medical service robots, experienced its first robot approved for surgery assistance in 1991, known as the Cyberknife. Authorized by the FDA in 1994, it included an image-guidance system mounted on a robotic arm to assist the surgeon in his tasks.

Finally, in the personal robotics field, the introduction of the well-known Roomba vacuum cleaner in 2002 was probably the first significant step towards widely accepted large-scale domestic robotics.

In Part 2 of the series we’ll explore how industrial robots have evolved into more affordable and collaborative robots, their advantages and uses, and why humans will take an increasingly important role as robots get more intelligent.