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> History of Robotics, from early ages up to now Issue: 2008-3 Section: Science


This paper is a brief overview of robotics, starting from the very beginning of this field of technology up to the most modern developments. A general, yet useful, description of what a robot is (and is not ...) is provided in order to gain better understanding of the rest of information given.

Finally, some conclusions are outlined, mainly in order to let the interested reader getting further to give the interested reader further knowledge in this area.


What is a robot?

First of all, let's clarify one central point: can we give an exact definition of robot? At the moment, there is no agreement on which machines qualify as robots, but a general agreement among experts that robots tend to do some (or all) of the following: move around, operate one or more mechanical arms, sense and manipulate their environment, and exhibit intelligent behavior, especially behavior which mimics humans or animals. A more concise and clear definition is given by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) which in its ISO 8373 writes as follows: an automatically controlled, multipurpose, manipulator programmable in three or more axes, which may be either fixed in place or mobile for use in industrial automation applications. So let's make use of this statement for our trip throughout history of robotics technology.



In antiquity

The first mythological report about automatic machines is in the Iliad by stating that the god Hephaestus made talking mechanical handmaidens out of gold. Also philosophy have witnessed interest in this area since philosophers (notably Aristotle in 322 BC) have also dreamed of automatons and tools capable of working independently of people as means to free men from slavery.


In the middle ages

Various reports credit the middle east of a notable amount of efforts in building automatically operating machines, notably the work of Al-Jazari stands out.

He is credited with creating the earliest forms of a programmable humanoid robot in 1206. His automaton was originally a boat with four automatic musicians that floated on a lake to entertain guests at royal drinking parties. Its mechanism had a programmable drum machine with pegs (cams) that bump into little levers that operated the percussion.


In the renaissance up to 1800

The most notable results of this period are the very famous Leonardo's robots in 1495, even if it is not known if they were ever built. But we think that a very important step in robotics is the automation of production: the work of Richard Arkwright led to build water powered weaving machine and factory around it in 1781, helping the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. By 1800, cloth production was completely automated. This promoted the idea of automata began to be applied to industry, as cost and time saving devices.

Of course, this may pose)some ethical debate since a massive automation in factories renders human work more and more useless.

Today, also global economic difficulties raise this issue more hardly than before.


Past century up to now

Anyway, the very impressive development of robotics is roughly in the last 100 years.

The word used today to refer to automatic machines is written for the first time by Czech author Karel Capek in his 1921 play R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots). The word means something in relation to slavery, being something that has to help and serve humans in their needs. This is and should be one of the key points in developing robotics automata since their use should be in order to help humans and not the other way around.

After 1950, robotics began rapidly to increase in complexity as the technology needed to make the devices became easier to produce.

Hence, the development of robots became faster and more exciting.

Thus robotics was linked tighter and tighter with the design of cheaper and more powerful microprocessors, since the robots are inherently programmable.

Let us take a look at some of the cornerstones of this subject: Unimate, the first industrial robot ever created began working on the General Motors assembly line in 1961; conceived of in 1954 by George Devol and Joseph Engelberger, Unimate was made by the company Unimation. Also a marking point in the history of robotics is the George Luca's picture 2001: A Space Odyssey released in 1968; the movie prominently features HAL 9000, a malevolent artificial intelligence unit which controls a spacecraft.

This is a clear example of an autonomous intelligence unit which, evolving in self-consciousness, turns itself apart of their human masters will, and eventually ends up in tragic epilogues, where one of the spacemen dies and, finally, HAL 9000 is destroyed, for the sake of the mission.

Mechanical Engineering student Victor Scheinman created the Stanford Arm in 1969; the Stanford Arm is recognized as the first electronic computer controlled robotic arm (Unimate's instructions were stored on a magnetic drum). It also started a very important and actual field of research which is the robotics applied to humans medicine, especially for re-construction of damaged parts of the human body.

The first mobile robot capable of reasoning about its surroundings, Shakey, was built in 1970 by the Stanford Research Institute. Shakey combined multiple sensor inputs, including TV cameras, laser rangefinders, and bump sensors to navigate. In 1974, David Silver designed The Silver Arm; the Silver Arm was capable of fine movements replicating human hands.

Feedback was provided by touch and pressure sensors and analyzed by a computer.

Sensors raise up one of the key features of robots, stated at the beginning of the article: the ability to sense and react to the environment.

It also distinguishes automatically operating and sensing machines from the rest.

Based on studies of flexible objects in nature (such as elephant trunks and the vertebrae of snakes), Shigeo Hirose designed the Soft Gripper in 1976, capable of conforming to the object it was grasping.

The SCARA, Selective Compliance Assembly Robot Arm, was created in 1978 as an efficient, 4-axis robotic arm.

Best used for picking up parts and placing them in another location, the SCARA was introduced to assembly lines in 1981. The Stanford Cart successfully crossed a room full of chairs in 1979 relying primarily on stereo vision to navigate and determine distances. Another attempt to reproduce human abilities in a robot! 1986 is another cornerstone, the giant industry Honda in the field of humanoid robotics: they began humanoid research and development program to create robots capable of interacting successfully with humans. Later on, the Cyberknife (a stereotactic radio surgery performing robot), invented by Dr. John Adler, in 1994, represented a faster method of performing surgery with equivalent accuracy to one done by human doctors. Research in this field is still very active, because frequently surgeons are far apart from their patients, especially when these are wounded in war regions. Honda's P2 humanoid robot was first shown in 1996. Standing for Prototype Model 2, P2 was an integral part of Honda's humanoid development project; over 6 feet tall, P2 was smaller than its predecessors and appeared to be more human like in its motions. Another exciting chapter of this history is the exploration of space and planets around the Earth. Of course, it very dangerous, difficult and expensive to send men flying around the globe so it is far better to let automatic tools do the job. Expected to only operate for seven days, the Sojourner rover finally shuts down after 83 days of operation in 1997.

This small robot performed semi-autonomous operations on the surface of Mars as part of the Mars Pathfinder mission; equipped with an obstacle avoidance program, Sojourner was capable of planning and navigating routes to study the surface of the planet. Sojourner's ability to navigate with little data about its environment and nearby surroundings allowed the robot to react to unplanned events and objects. Another clear example of how much help and development robots could bear to humanity. The P3 humanoid robot was revealed by Honda in 1998 as a part of the company's continuing humanoid project. But Honda is not the only one interested in the humanoid robots field. In 1999, Sony introduced the AIBO, a robotic dog capable of interacting with humans, the first models released in Japan sold out in 20 minutes. After that, Honda revealed the most advanced result of their humanoid project in 2000, named ASIMO. It is capable of walking, communicating with humans, facial and environmental recognition, voice and posture recognition, and interacting with its environment efficiently. Some of the last shows of ASIMO has also been involved in directing musicians in an orchestra! Sony also revealed its Sony Dream Robots, small humanoid robots in development for entertainment. In April 2001, the Canadarm2 was launched into orbit and attached to the International Space Station. The Canadarm2 is a larger; more capable version of the arm used by the Space Shuttle and is hailed as being smarter. Also in April, the Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) Global Hawk made the first autonomous non-stop flight over the Pacific Ocean from Edwards Air Force Base in California to RAAF Base Edinburgh in Southern Australia. The flight lasted in 22 hours. The popular Roomba, a robotic vacuum cleaner, was first released in 2002 by the company iRobot. On January 3rd and 24th the Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity land on the surface of Mars. Launched in 2003, the two robots will drive many times the distance originally expected, and are still operating. Of course, competition is a great mean for exciting interest around robotics. All 15 teams competing in the 2004 DARPA Grand Challenge failed to complete the course, with no robot successfully navigating more than five percent of the 150 mile off road course, leaving the $1 million dollar prize unclaimed. But, In the 2005 DARPA Grand Challenge, five teams completed the off-road course; Stanford University's Stanley won first place and the $2 million dollar prize. In 2006, Cornell University revealed its Starfish robot, a 4-legged robot capable of self modeling and learning to walk after having been damaged. Finally, in September 2007, Google announced its Lunar X Prize. The Lunar X Prize offers 30 million dollars to the first private company which lands a rover on the moon and sends images back to earth.


Final remarks

This short historic report shows that robotics is a dream of humans, spanning from old ages up to the most advanced solutions of our days. Great challenges are still to be faced but robotics may be a very helpful and exciting field of research, which will help strongly the development of tools capable of expanding our knowledge of the space, protecting ourselves from dangers, so let humans live better on earth.




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