Automatons — better known by most as robots — have been a part of the human collective unconscious for a long time.
The ancient Hebrews and Greeks both made references to golems and mechanical assistants to aid humans in their pursuits. The word robot didn’t appear in literature until Karel Capek’s 1921 play “Rossum’s Universal Robots.” In 1926, the film “Metropolis” became the first moving picture to portray a human-looking robot on the silver screen.
Today, robots are a part of our daily lives. Even if we don’t cross paths, robots are now working in our warehouses and assembly plants, exploring distant planets, helping us inspect our infrastructure sites and even build brand-new ones.
But how do robots actually work? What are the components of robots, and how do they contribute to its overall functionality? Here’s a crash course in the parts that make robots tick.
1. Central Processing Unit
The central processing unit (CPU) acts as the “brain” of the robot. In other words, a CPU is the robot component that provides feedback to outside stimulus.
All organisms function and survive by using feedback. It’s what causes us to whip our hand away after we’ve touched a hot stove. The CPU in a robot takes in environmental data using sensors and then calls on its programming to perform the appropriate action.
Sensors are the powerhouse of a robot’s feedback mechanism. They act like “eyes” and “ears” to help the robot take in information about its surroundings. Robots typically incorporate a wide range of sensor types to help them perform their work. These include:
- Light sensors
- Sound sensors
- Temperature sensors
- Contact sensors
- Proximity sensors
- Distance sensors
- Pressure sensors
- Positioning sensors
Contact and proximity sensors help robots navigate more confidently and safely, especially when deployed alongside human workers. Pressure sensors may control the grip strength of a powered robotic arm, so that it doesn’t crush the merchandise it’s processing.
Positioning sensors include GPS, digital magnetic compasses and other tools to approximate the location of a robot, either indoors or outdoors.
If sensors are the eyes and ears of the robot, its actuators function like muscles. Actuators are small motors attached directly to the structure of the robot that facilitate movement. Some of the most common types include:
- Hydraulic: Uses oil to facilitate movement. Typically used in heavy machinery, including mining and construction equipment.
- Pneumatic: Uses air to facilitate movement.
- Electric: Uses electric current and magnets to facilitate movement.
Some of the simplest robots consist of little more than an arm, an actuator and a tool for performing work. More complex robots may use actuators to kick treads, wheels or even legs into motion.
When robots are deployed to complete delicate tasks that require finesses and accuracy, step motors may be used. These are distinct motor designs that provide movement in specific intervals in a highly repeatable fashion.
The ability to realize consistently high-quality results through robots and step motors is one of the reasons why robotic assembly took off in such a huge way in the 1960s and never slowed down.
The terms “effector” and “end-effector” are sometimes used interchangeably. Both terms refer to the tools aboard the robot — that is, the tools that perform the actual work and interact with the environment or a workpiece. Here are a few examples:
- Factory robots may feature end-effectors such as welding torches, screwdrivers, rivet guns and paint sprayers.
- Mobile robots usually have manipulators and grippers for lifting objects or disposing of dangerous ordinance.
- Robots like those dispatched to other planets may carry shovels, drills, hammers, cameras, lights and other analytical implements.
From simple to complex, effectors allow robots to carry out their specific tasks with precision.
5. Power Supply
Just like human beings consume food when they need energy, robots need energy to function as well. Almost all robots receive their power from electricity.
Power supplies can still take many different forms, however. Stationary robots, like those in factories, receive direct power just like any other appliance. Mobile robots typically sport high-capacity batteries, while robotic probes and satellites are generally equipped with solar panels for harvesting energy from the sun.
6. A Program
A robot’s programming isn’t a physical component, but it’s still an essential part of the whole. Each of the components of robots we’ve looked at today either take in stimulus or provide a form of feedback. The program within a robot provides the logic that drives these behaviors.
You may be familiar with automation recipes, including “If This Then That” functionality. It’s a concept anyone can explore with their smartphones and smart homes. Robots, likewise, contain “logic trees” that gather and analyze task and environmental data, and then choose an appropriate response based on that stimulus.
For example — if a robot approaches a steep drop-off, it will back away automatically. A robotic probe exploring another world may activate a different tool depending on what its cameras and sensors detect around it.
Human decision-making happens quickly enough that we’re usually not aware of making decisions in-the-moment. The same general concept applies to getting robots to perform specific tasks in uncertain circumstances, all without much or any human interaction.
Robots and Progress Intertwined
Robotics have long been a bellwether for the march of technological progress. Early attempts at robots look halting and clumsy now when you consider the agility of something like Boston Dynamics’ robotic dog, “Spot.” Far from a toy, this $74,500 robot is capable of “almost limitless” applications, according to Boston Dynamics spokespeople, ranging from pulling heavy loads to conducting automated surveillance of private property.
The march continues. Over the coming years, we’ll soon see robots taking on an even wider variety of forms and carrying out many more tasks than they do today. From performing tasks for small businesses to building and maintaining some of the most impressive structures in the world, if there’s something to inspect, fabricate or carry, there’s probably a robot for that.
Follow Us On
Get the latest tech stories and news in seconds!
Sign up for our newsletter below to receive updates about technology trends