How Robots Work by Tom Harris

by Tom Harris

On the most basic level, human beings are made up of five major components:

  • A body structure
  • A muscle system to move the body structure
  • A sensory system that receives information about the body and the surrounding environment
  • A power source to activate the muscles and sensors
  • A brain system that processes sensory information and tells the muscles what to do

Of course, we also have some intangible attributes, such as intelligence and morality, but on the sheer physical level, the list above about covers it.

A robot is made up of the very same components. A typical robot has a movable physical structure, a motor of some sort, a sensor system, a power supply and a computer “brain” that controls all of these elements. Essentially, robots are man-made versions of animal life — they are machines that replicate human and animal behavior.

In this article, we’ll explore the basic concept of robotics and find out how robots do what they do.

Joseph Engelberger, a pioneer in industrial robotics, once remarked “I can’t define a robot, but I know one when I see one.” If you consider all the different machines people call robots, you can see that it’s nearly impossible to come up with a comprehensive definition. Everybody has a different idea of what constitutes a robot.

You’ve probably heard of several of these famous robots:

  • R2D2 and C-3PO: The intelligent, speaking robots with loads of personality in the Star Wars movies
  • Sony’s AIBO: A robotic dog that learns through human interaction
  • Honda’s ASIMO: A robot that can walk on two legs like a person
  • Industrial robots: Automated machines that work on assembly lines
  • Data: The almost human android from Star Trek
  • BattleBots: The remote control fighters on Comedy Central
  • Bomb-defusing robots
  • NASA’s Mars rovers
  • HAL: The ship’s computer in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey
  • Robomower: The lawn-mowing robot from Friendly Robotics
  • The Robot in the television series “Lost in Space”
  • MindStorms: LEGO’s popular robotics kit

All of these things are considered robots, at least by some people. The broadest definition around defines a robot as anything that a lot of people recognize as a robot. Most roboticists (people who build robots) use a more precise definition. They specify that robots have a reprogrammable brain (a computer) that moves a body.

By this definition, robots are distinct from other movable machines, such as cars, because of their computer element. Many new cars do have an onboard computer, but it’s only there to make small adjustments. You control most elements in the car directly by way of various mechanical devices. Robots are distinct from ordinary computers in their physical nature — normal computers don’t have a physical body attached to them.

Robot Basics

The vast majority of robots do have several qualities in common. First of all, almost all robots have a movable body. Some only have motorized wheels, and others have dozens of movable segments, typically made of metal or plastic. Like the bones in your body, the individual segments are connected together with joints.
Robots spin wheels and pivot jointed segments with some sort of actuator. Some robots use electric motors and solenoids as actuators; some use a hydraulic system; and some use a pneumatic system (a system driven by compressed gases). Robots may use all these actuator types.

A robot needs a power source to drive these actuators. Most robots either have a battery or they plug into the wall. Hydraulic robots also need a pump to pressurize the hydraulic fluid, and pneumatic robots need an air compressor or compressed air tanks.

The actuators are all wired to an electrical circuit. The circuit powers electrical motors and solenoids directly, and it activates the hydraulic system by manipulating electrical valves. The valves determine the pressurized fluid’s path through the machine. To move a hydraulic leg, for example, the robot’s controller would open the valve leading from the fluid pump to a piston cylinder attached to that leg. The pressurized fluid would extend the piston, swiveling the leg forward. Typically, in order to move their segments in two directions, robots use pistons that can push both ways.

The robot’s computer controls everything attached to the circuit. To move the robot, the computer switches on all the necessary motors and valves. Most robots are reprogrammable — to change the robot’s behavior, you simply write a new program to its computer.

Not all robots have sensory systems, and few have the ability to see, hear, smell or taste. The most common robotic sense is the sense of movement — the robot’s ability to monitor its own motion. A standard design uses slotted wheels attached to the robot’s joints. An LED on one side of the wheel shines a beam of light through the slots to a light sensor on the other side of the wheel. When the robot moves a particular joint, the slotted wheel turns. The slots break the light beam as the wheel spins. The light sensor reads the pattern of the flashing light and transmits the data to the computer. The computer can tell exactly how far the joint has swiveled based on this pattern. This is the same basic system used in computer mice.

These are the basic nuts and bolts of robotics. Roboticists can combine these elements in an infinite number of ways to create robots of unlimited complexity.

The Robotic Arm

The term robot comes from the Czech word robota, generally translated as “forced labor.” This describes the majority of robots fairly well. Most robots in the world are designed for heavy, repetitive manufacturing work. They handle tasks that are difficult, dangerous or boring to human beings.
The most common manufacturing robot is the robotic arm. A typical robotic arm is made up of seven metal segments, joined by six joints. The computer controls the robot by rotating individual step motors connected to each joint (some larger arms use hydraulics or pneumatics). Unlike ordinary motors, step motors move in exact increments (check out Anaheim Automation to find out how). This allows the computer to move the arm very precisely, repeating exactly the same movement over and over again. The robot uses motion sensors to make sure it moves just the right amount.

An industrial robot with six joints closely resembles a human arm — it has the equivalent of a shoulder, an elbow and a wrist. Typically, the shoulder is mounted to a stationary base structure rather than to a movable body. This type of robot has six degrees of freedom, meaning it can pivot in six different ways. A human arm, by comparison, has seven degrees of freedom.

Your arm’s job is to move your hand from place to place. Similarly, the robotic arm’s job is to move an end effector from place to place. You can outfit robotic arms with all sorts of end effectors, which are suited to a particular application. One common end effector is a simplified version of the hand, which can grasp and carry different objects. Robotic hands often have built-in pressure sensors that tell the computer how hard the robot is gripping a particular object. This keeps the robot from dropping or breaking whatever it’s carrying. Other end effectors include blowtorches, drills and spray painters.

Industrial robots are designed to do exactly the same thing, in a controlled environment, over and over again. For example, a robot might twist the caps onto peanut butter jars coming down an assembly line. To teach a robot how to do its job, the programmer guides the arm through the motions using a handheld controller. The robot stores the exact sequence of movements in its memory, and does it again and again every time a new unit comes down the assembly line.

Most industrial robots work in auto assembly lines, putting cars together. Robots can do a lot of this work more efficiently than human beings because they are so precise. They always drill in the exactly the same place, and they always tighten bolts with the same amount of force, no matter how many hours they’ve been working. Manufacturing robots are also very important in the computer industry. It takes an incredibly precise hand to put together a tiny microchip.

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