What's in your robot?

Sept. 1, 2008
A few weeks ago, at the Worldwide Graphical System Design Conference in Austin, Texas, I had the pleasure of leading a discussion on robotics among a

A few weeks ago, at the Worldwide Graphical System Design Conference in Austin, Texas, I had the pleasure of leading a discussion on robotics among a panel of experts that included MIT professor, Woodie Flowers; Virginia Tech professor, Al Wicks; Sam Kherat, director of the Pittsburgh Automation Center; and Charlie Knapp, program manager for robotics and unmanned systems at National Instruments. In the opening minutes, the group established the fact that there are no clear cut definitions when it comes to robotics. Then we proceeded to thoroughly address the topic that none of us could precisely define.

What the panel actually talked about, in clear and concise terms, was something all of us here can relate to; the development of systems incorporating multiple points of torque and force regulated by sensor feedback and command inputs. That's correct: We talked about motion system design as practiced today, and how it's being leveraged to automate all sorts of things from remote surgery to packing egg cartons at lightning speed.

Robotics, like any other area of motion-centric automation, is essentially a subset of motion system design. As such, it combines a multitude of technologies — mechanical, electrical, electronic, computer — and relies on a variety of components, including sensors, actuators, linkages and mechanisms, gears, belts, bearings, slides, signal-processing hardware and software, data networks, controllers, and more. When people talk about “robotics,” especially when they focus on working systems, these are the things that come up.

It wasn't all that long ago, however, that a discussion on “robotics” would have been more of an exercise in fantasy than a reality-based dialogue. The word “robot,” as you may know, comes from the realm of science fiction, first appearing in the title of a play — R. U. R. (Rossum's Universal Robots) — written by Karel Capek in the early 1920s. In Capek's sci-fi thriller, a scientist and his son build a mechanical workforce to perform menial human tasks, an invention the writer describes in his native Czech with the word robota, meaning drudgery or servitude.

When R. U. R. premiered in Prague in 1921, no one could have predicted how quickly technology would catch up to Capek's fertile imagination. Within 10 years, the analog computer was born — a major step — followed by a series of transformational inventions, including the transistor, the integrated circuit, the microprocessor, and the field-programmable gate array.

Meanwhile, advances in software, though occurring more slowly, were to eventually unlock the computer's potential. Not even Capek could have imagined what was to come; that tracing lines and connecting images on screen would produce executable computer code and working mathematical models. This highly expressive form of programming — graphical system design — is what brought the panel and me to Austin in the first place.

Back when the term “robot” first captured man's attention, motion systems were almost entirely mechanical. Most of the timing and control functions — from the lowest to the highest levels of abstraction — were synthesized from mechanical assemblies and limited in range and scope. Today, however, as the panelists confirmed, almost everything that moves — whether on wheels, wings, or pods — is of interdisciplinary origin designed with adaptation in mind. We may not agree on the definition of robotics, but we must all admit to the reality of it.

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