Sunday, April 5, 2009

Components of robots


The structure of a robot is usually mostly mechanical and can be called a kinematic chain (its functionality being similar to the skeleton of the human body). The chain is formed of links (its bones), actuators (its muscles), and joints which can allow one or more degrees of freedom. Most contemporary robots use open serial chains in which each link connects the one before to the one after it. These robots are called serial robots and often resemble the human arm. Some robots, such as the Stewart platform, use a closed parallel kinematical chain. Other structures, such as those that mimic the mechanical structure of humans, various animals, and insects, are comparatively rare. However, the development and use of such structures in robots is an active area of research (e.g. biomechanics). Robots used as manipulators have an end effector mounted on the last link. This end effector can be anything from a welding device to a mechanical hand used to manipulate the environment.

Power source

At present; mostly (lead-acid) batteries are used, but potential powersources could be:

* compressed air canisters (see air car)
* flywheel energy storage
* organic garbage (trough anaerobic digestion
* feces (human, animal); may be interesting in a military context as feces of small combat groups may be reused for the energy requirements of the robot assistant (see DEKA's project Slingshot stirling engine on how the system would operate)
* still untested energy sources (eg Joe Cell, ...)
* radioactive source (such as with the proposed Ford car of the '50); too proposed in movies as Red Planet (film)

A robot leg powered by Air Muscles

Actuators are the "muscles" of a robot, the parts which convert stored energy into movement. By far the most popular actuators are electric motors, but there are many others, powered by electricity, chemicals, and compressed air.

* Motors: The vast majority of robots use electric motors, including brushed and brushless DC motors.
* Stepper motors: As the name suggests, stepper motors do not spin freely like DC motors; they rotate in discrete steps, under the command of a controller. This makes them easier to control, as the controller knows exactly how far they have rotated, without having to use a sensor. Therefore, they are used on many robots and CNC machines.
* Piezo motors: A recent alternative to DC motors are piezo motors or ultrasonic motors. These work on a fundamentally different principle, whereby tiny piezoceramic elements, vibrating many thousands of times per second, cause linear or rotary motion. There are different mechanisms of operation; one type uses the vibration of the piezo elements to walk the motor in a circle or a straight line.[10] Another type uses the piezo elements to cause a nut to vibrate and drive a screw. The advantages of these motors are nanometer resolution, speed, and available force for their size.[11] These motors are already available commercially, and being used on some robots.[12][13]
* Air muscles: The air muscle is a simple yet powerful device for providing a pulling force. When inflated with compressed air, it contracts by up to 40% of its original length. The key to its behavior is the braiding visible around the outside, which forces the muscle to be either long and thin, or short and fat. Since it behaves in a very similar way to a biological muscle, it can be used to construct robots with a similar muscle/skeleton system to an animal.[14] For example, the Shadow robot hand uses 40 air muscles to power its 24 joints.
* Electroactive polymers: Electroactive polymers are a class of plastics which change shape in response to electrical stimulation.[15] They can be designed so that they bend, stretch, or contract, but so far there are no EAPs suitable for commercial robots, as they tend to have low efficiency or are not robust.[16] Indeed, all of the entrants in a recent competition to build EAP powered arm wrestling robots, were beaten by a 17 year old girl.[17] However, they are expected to improve in the future, where they may be useful for microrobotic applications.[18]
* Elastic nanotubes: These are a promising, early-stage experimental technology. The absence of defects in nanotubes enables these filaments to deform elastically by several percent, with energy storage levels of perhaps 10J per cu cm for metal nanotubes. Human biceps could be replaced with an 8mm diameter wire of this material. Such compact "muscle" might allow future robots to outrun and outjump humans.[19]



Current robotic and prosthetic hands receive far less tactile information than the human hand. Recent research has developed a tactile sensor array that mimics the mechanical properties and touch receptors of human fingertips.[20] The sensor array is constructed as a rigid core surrounded by conductive fluid contained by an elastomeric skin. Electrodes are mounted on the surface of the rigid core and are connected to an impedance-measuring device within the core. When the artificial skin touches an object the fluid path around the electrodes is deformed, producing impedance changes that map the forces received from the object. The researchers expect that an important function of such artificial fingertips will be adjusting robotic grip on held objects.



Robots which must work in the real world require some way to manipulate objects; pick up, modify, destroy, or otherwise have an effect. Thus the 'hands' of a robot are often referred to as end effectors,[21] while the arm is referred to as a manipulator.[22] Most robot arms have replaceable effectors, each allowing them to perform some small range of tasks. Some have a fixed manipulator which cannot be replaced, while a few have one very general purpose manipulator, for example a humanoid hand.

* Mechanical Grippers: One of the most common effectors is the gripper. In its simplest manifestation it consists of just two fingers which can open and close to pick up and let go of a range of small objects. See end effectors.
* Vacuum Grippers: Pick and place robots for electronic components and for large objects like car windscreens, will often use very simple vacuum grippers. These are very simple astrictive [23] devices, but can hold very large loads provided the prehension surface is smooth enough to ensure suction.
* General purpose effectors: Some advanced robots are beginning to use fully humanoid hands, like the Shadow Hand and the Schunk hand.[24] These highly dexterous manipulators, with as many as 20 degrees of freedom and hundreds of tactile sensors[25]

For the definitive guide to all forms of robot endeffectors, their design, and usage consult the book "Robot Grippers".[26]


Also see Robot locomotion.

Rolling robots
Segway in the Robot museum in Nagoya.

For simplicity, most mobile robots have four wheels. However, some researchers have tried to create more complex wheeled robots, with only one or two wheels.

* Two-wheeled balancing: While the Segway is not commonly thought of as a robot, it can be thought of as a component of a robot. Several real robots do use a similar dynamic balancing algorithm, and NASA's Robonaut has been mounted on a Segway.[27]
* Ballbot: Carnegie Mellon University researchers have developed a new type of mobile robot that balances on a ball instead of legs or wheels. "Ballbot" is a self-contained, battery-operated, omnidirectional robot that balances dynamically on a single urethane-coated metal sphere. It weighs 95 pounds and is the approximate height and width of a person. Because of its long, thin shape and ability to maneuver in tight spaces, it has the potential to function better than current robots can in environments with people.[28]
* Track Robot: Another type of rolling robot is one that has tracks, like NASA's Urban Robot, Urbie.[29]

Walking robots
iCub robot, designed by the RobotCub Consortium

Walking is a difficult and dynamic problem to solve. Several robots have been made which can walk reliably on two legs, however none have yet been made which are as robust as a human. Many robots have also been build that walk on more than 2 legs; these robots being significantly more easy to construct. Hybrids too have been proposed in movies as iRobot, where they walk on 2 legs and switch to 4 (arms+legs) when going to a sprint. Typically, robots on 2 legs can walk well on flat floors, and can occasionally walk up stairs. None can walk over rocky, uneven terrain. Some of the methods which have been tried are:

* ZMP Technique: The Zero Moment Point (ZMP) is the algorithm used by robots such as Honda's ASIMO. The robot's onboard computer tries to keep the total inertial forces (the combination of earth's gravity and the acceleration and deceleration of walking), exactly opposed by the floor reaction force (the force of the floor pushing back on the robot's foot). In this way, the two forces cancel out, leaving no moment (force causing the robot to rotate and fall over).[30] However, this is not exactly how a human walks, and the difference is quite apparent to human observers, some of whom have pointed out that ASIMO walks as if it needs the lavatory.[31][32][33] ASIMO's walking algorithm is not static, and some dynamic balancing is used (See below). However, it still requires a smooth surface to walk on.
* Hopping: Several robots, built in the 1980s by Marc Raibert at the MIT Leg Laboratory, successfully demonstrated very dynamic walking. Initially, a robot with only one leg, and a very small foot, could stay upright simply by hopping. The movement is the same as that of a person on a pogo stick. As the robot falls to one side, it would jump slightly in that direction, in order to catch itself.[34] Soon, the algorithm was generalised to two and four legs. A bipedal robot was demonstrated running and even performing somersaults.[35] A quadruped was also demonstrated which could trot, run, pace, and bound.[36] For a full list of these robots, see the MIT Leg Lab Robots page.
* Dynamic Balancing or controlled falling:A more advanced way for a robot to walk is by using a dynamic balancing algorithm, which is potentially more robust than the Zero Moment Point technique, as it constantly monitors the robot's motion, and places the feet in order to maintain stability.[37] This technique was recently demonstrated by Anybots' Dexter Robot,[38] which is so stable, it can even jump.[39] Another example is the TU Delft Flame.
* Passive Dynamics: Perhaps the most promising approach utilizes passive dynamics where the momentum of swinging limbs is used for greater efficiency. It has been shown that totally unpowered humanoid mechanisms can walk down a gentle slope, using only gravity to propel themselves. Using this technique, a robot need only supply a small amount of motor power to walk along a flat surface or a little more to walk up a hill. This technique promises to make walking robots at least ten times more efficient than ZMP walkers, like ASIMO.[40][41]

Other methods of locomotion
RQ-4 Global Hawk unmanned aerial vehicle

* Flying: A modern passenger airliner is essentially a flying robot, with two humans to manage it. The autopilot can control the plane for each stage of the journey, including takeoff, normal flight, and even landing.[42] Other flying robots are uninhabited, and are known as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). They can be smaller and lighter without a human pilot onboard, and fly into dangerous territory for military surveillance missions. Some can even fire on targets under command. UAVs are also being developed which can fire on targets automatically, without the need for a command from a human. However these robots are unlikely to see service in the foreseeable future because of the morality issues involved. Other flying robots include cruise missiles, the Entomopter, and the Epson micro helicopter robot.

Two robot snakes. Left one has 64 motors (with 2 degrees of freedom per segment), the right one 10.

* Snaking: Several snake robots have been successfully developed. Mimicking the way real snakes move, these robots can navigate very confined spaces, meaning they may one day be used to search for people trapped in collapsed buildings.[43] The Japanese ACM-R5 snake robot[44] can even navigate both on land and in water.[45]
* Skating: A small number of skating robots have been developed, one of which is a multi-mode walking and skating device, Titan VIII[dead link]. It has four legs, with unpowered wheels, which can either step or roll.[46] Another robot, Plen, can use a miniature skateboard or rollerskates, and skate across a desktop.[47]
* Swimming: It is calculated that when swimming some fish can achieve a propulsive efficiency greater than 90%.[48] Furthermore, they can accelerate and maneuver far better than any man-made boat or submarine, and produce less noise and water disturbance. Therefore, many researchers studying underwater robots would like to copy this type of locomotion.[49] Notable examples are the Essex University Computer Science Robotic Fish,[50] and the Robot Tuna built by the Institute of Field Robotics, to analyze and mathematically model thunniform motion.[51]

Environmental interaction and navigation
RADAR, GPS, LIDAR, ... are all combined to provide proper navigation and obstacle avoidance

Robots also require navigation hardware and software in order to anticipate on their environment. In particular unforeseen events (eg people and other obstacles that are not stationary) can cause problems or collisions. Some highly advanced robots as ASIMO, EveR-1, Meinü robot have particular good robot navigation hardware and software. Also, self-controlled car, Ernst Dickmanns' driverless car and the entries in the DARPA Grand Challenge are capable of sensing the environment well and make navigation decisions based on this information. Most of the robots include regular a GPS navigation device with waypoints, along with radar, sometimes combined with other sensor data such as LIDAR, video cameras, and inertial guidance systems for better navigation in between waypoints.

Human interaction
Kismet can produce a range of facial expressions.

If robots are to work effectively in homes and other non-industrial environments, the way they are instructed to perform their jobs, and especially how they will be told to stop will be of critical importance. The people who interact with them may have little or no training in robotics, and so any interface will need to be extremely intuitive. Science fiction authors also typically assume that robots will eventually be capable of communicating with humans through speech, gestures, and facial expressions, rather than a command-line interface. Although speech would be the most natural way for the human to communicate, it is quite unnatural for the robot. It will be quite a while before robots interact as naturally as the fictional C-3PO.

* Speech recognition: Interpreting the continuous flow of sounds coming from a human (speech recognition), in real time, is a difficult task for a computer, mostly because of the great variability of speech. The same word, spoken by the same person may sound different depending on local acoustics, volume, the previous word, whether or not the speaker has a cold, etc.. It becomes even harder when the speaker has a different accent.[52] Nevertheless, great strides have been made in the field since Davis, Biddulph, and Balashek designed the first "voice input system" which recognized "ten digits spoken by a single user with 100% accuracy" in 1952.[53] Currently, the best systems can recognize continuous, natural speech, up to 160 words per minute, with an accuracy of 95%.[54]
* Gestures: One can imagine, in the future, explaining to a robot chef how to make a pastry, or asking directions from a robot police officer. On both of these occasions, making hand gestures would aid the verbal descriptions. In the first case, the robot would be recognizing gestures made by the human, and perhaps repeating them for confirmation. In the second case, the robot police officer would gesture to indicate "down the road, then turn right". It is quite likely that gestures will make up a part of the interaction between humans and robots.[55] A great many systems have been developed to recognize human hand gestures.[56]
* Facial expression: Facial expressions can provide rapid feedback on the progress of a dialog between two humans, and soon it may be able to do the same for humans and robots. Frubber robotic faces have been constructed by Hanson Robotics, allowing a great amount of facial expressions due to the elasticity of the rubber facial coating and imbedded subsurface motors (servos)to produce the facial expressions. [57] The coating and servos are build untop of a metal skull. A robot should know how to approach a human, judging by their facial expression and body language. Whether the person is happy, frightened, or crazy-looking affects the type of interaction expected of the robot. Likewise, robots like Kismet and the more recent addition, Nexi [58] can produce a range of facial expressions, allowing it to have meaningful social exchanges with humans.[59]
* Artificial emotions Artificial emotions can also be imbedded and are composed of a sequence of facial expressions and/or gestures. As can be seen from the movie Final_Fantasy:_The_Spirits_Within, the programming of these artificial emotions is quite complex and requires a great amount of human observation. To simplify this programming in the movie Final_Fantasy:_The_Spirits_Within, presets were created together with a special software program. This allowed the producers of decreasing the time required tremendously to make the film. These presets could possibly be transferred for use in real-life robots.
* Personality: Many of the robots of science fiction have a personality, and that is something which may or may not be desirable in the commercial robots of the future.[60] Nevertheless, researchers are trying to create robots which appear to have a personality:[61][62] i.e. they use sounds, facial expressions and body language to try to convey an internal state, which may be joy, sadness, or fear. One commercial example is Pleo, a toy robot dinosaur, which can exhibit several apparent emotions.[63]

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