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Robotics is the study of robots

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Robots are everywhere! We see them all over TV, books and film. Recent examples include Baymax in Big Hero Six to R2D2 in Star Wars to Ultron in Avengers 2: Age of Ultron. So, maybe it is not surprising that the word “robot” actually came from fiction. The word was first used in a play in the 1920s.

A robot is a machine guided by either computer programs or electric circuitry

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A robot is a mechanical machine that is guided by either computer programs or electric circuitry. Robots often work autonomously -- that means without human interference. Or, they may work semi-autonomously - with a little human help. Robotics is the study of anything to do with robots including design, construction, control and much more. Robotics is a fast-growing area of technology. Many types of engineers, including Computer, Mechanical and Electrical engineers, may be required to design a robotic machine.

Robots have controls, sensors, parts for movement, and a power supply

Robots are a type of machine. A machine is something with one or more parts that uses energy to do a job. But robots are machines that can operate on their own to some degree. Some main parts of a robot are the controls, sensors, parts for movement, and power.

The controls and sensors of a robot allow it to operate with some autonomy. Autonomy means that the robot can do some things on its own. It may make decisions to take actions on its own. Think of a robot traveling a maze that is programmed to make a turn when it encounters a wall. That is an autonomous decision – it is programmed to make that decision on its own in that situation.

Controls include the computer programming that gives the robot its directions. The controls can be very detailed to let robots respond to many different things around it.

The sensors on the robot allow for this response to happen. The sensors detect things around the robot and provide information to allow it to make decisions. For example, sensor might detect that there is a wall in front of the robot. The controls would act on this information and respond, perhaps by turning and changing direction. The controls and sensors work as a team for the robot. There are different types of sensors. A touch sensor reacts when it touches something. That is one way that a sensor could detect a wall. There are sensors that bounce signals off surfaces and see how fast they come back, like a submarine ping. Those could also be used to detect walls. There are many types of sensors.

Machine parts for movement are also important for a robot. Robots may do many different tasks, so they may need to move in a variety of ways. Some have wheels to allow them to drive. Others have arms that allow them to move in unique patterns, such as picking up and moving objects. Some robots even have legs that let them walk like humans.

Lastly, robots need a source of power. Some robots, like the Mars Rovers, use solar panels to charge their batteries and power the robot. Others may be plugged into a wall socket, or may run on batteries.

Robots can make cars, work in hazardous areas, or explore space

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Robots are moving into many different areas of everyday life. Below are just a few uses for robotics.

Hazardous Disaster Areas: Autonomous robots are especially useful in places that humans cannot safely go. In 2011, a large earthquake and tsunami struck Japan. The Fukushima nuclear power plant was damaged. Its radiation levels were very high and dangerous for people. So, robots were sent in to investigate the damage inside. Fully autonomous robots can gain information about their environment and maintain themselves without a human being involved for long periods of time.

Military robots: Robots can also have military uses. They can perform tasks that people used to do, and keep people out of dangerous situations. For example, robots might be used to dispose of bombs, or to explore a dangerous area and provide video, sound, and sensor data for the area. These robots may be able to climb stairs or navigate steep areas.

Space: Autonomous robots are very useful in space exploration, because the robots are far away from Earth. These robots can recharge themselves, move around, take samples, and navigate with little input from people on Earth. One example of robots used for space exploration are the Mars probes. These robots have gone on missions to Mars to help scientists learn more about its surface and atmosphere.

Self-driving Cars: There have been recent advances autonomous cars that can drive themselves. These cars rely on sensing the roads around them and using Global Positioning Satellites (GPS) to help move.

Manufacturing: In manufacturing, robots have replaced people in performing many repetitive and precise tasks. These roles can include welding parts together, as well as inspecting the quality of the parts. There are over 200,000 robots being used in industry today. The auto industry accounts for 35% of these.

Semi-autonomous robots do need some human help. An example is a robotic arm. The arm has a large amount of controls and programming, but the motions are controlled by the person using it. They use a joystick, buttons, and other controls to send signals to robot to control how it moves and turns.

Developing innovations in robots include nano robots, autonomous vehicles, and reading robots

One example of new types of robots is nano robots. Nano robots are very, very small and are largely still in research. Some have started to be created for medical uses. However, no non-biological nano robots have been created yet. Mechanical and biomedical engineers will be looking at this area of research for years to come.

Autonomy is an area where many advances are currently happening in consumer robotics. For example, Google and Uber are both working on making cars that drive themselves. Their self-driving cars use a laser system to create a 3D map of the world around them and respond. The Google self-driving cars are being tested and can be spotted on roads around the country. Uber is a car ride service company that uses a smartphone app to connect drivers with people looking for rides. Uber is new to the autonomous car business but hope to make a ride service that does not need drivers. However, these companies are not the first companies to look into making autonomous cars. Scientists have been researching creating self-driving cars since the 1920s.

Cars are not the only thing that are being made autonomous. Even vehicles used for farming, like tractors, are being made autonomous. By freeing farmers from driving their tractors, self-driving tractors can make their jobs less tedious and maybe make their farm processes more precise. Farmers can even program multiple machines to run next to each other and help each other tend to the fields.

Another area that engineers have had trouble with in the past is getting robots to read and recognize text. People can read even when the lightning, text size, and angle of the words vary. And, people can figure out what a word is supposed to be even when there is a mispelling. However, those things can make reading hard for machines. In order for machines to read, complex sensing is needed. A new robot called Marge the Reading Robot is a step in the right direction. Marge comes complete with text recognition, spell check, and dictionary software to help figure out what words are and what they mean.

The world of robotics is exciting, and many innovations can be expected in the upcoming years and decades!

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