Robotics is a word that has always been attached to the word “Future”, and since robots are more around than ever, we can consider that we are already living in the future.
The field of robotics is always mysterious and interesting to everyone, we always thought that it’s hard for everyone to study or to make robots and that it needs a lot of mathematics, electronics, and programming experience but since the technologies are developing faster than ever with the rise of Artificial intelligence and its involvement in many industries, it’s not hard anymore, but the good news is that kids can also start learning robotics.
In fact, speaking of robotics involves a very broad consideration of its technological application, which ranges from the simplest home assistant to huge industrial plants. So let’s see what are the basic principles of robotics, their functioning, and their main applications, with an eye constantly turned to the perspective given by the still largely unexplored potential of artificial intelligence.
What is “Robotics” and what does it mean?
Robotics is an interdisciplinary field of computer science and engineering; it performs physical tasks on behalf of humans, it aims to simulate human work, and in more general terms its behavior.
Robotics is the discipline that deals with the design, construction, and use of machines that are called robots and their possible applications. In this science, both the phases of research and those of technological application integrate skills in mechanics, information technology and electronics.
The origin of the term is linked to the Czech writer Karel Čapek who used the word robot (at the suggestion of his brother Josef) for the first time in 1920 in the comedy entitled RUR (Rossumovi Univerzální Roboti – Universal Robots of Rossum) where an imaginary humanoid appeared, identified as a robot to recall the Czech word robota, a term that literally meant “slave labor” or (unpaid work that the servants had to offer their masters for a period of time) and figuratively referred to “forced labor” (in ‘meaning of heavy work).
Robots are automatic machines that can be both controlled by humans and capable of self-control with feedback mechanisms, thanks to which they react to stimuli or to changed environmental conditions; in this they are assisted by highly developed programs that allow them to make choices appropriate to the situation.
Robots are anthropomorphic – that is, human-shaped – machines built by large electronics industries for many purposes,
Being able to give a unique definition and firmly say what a robot is, will not be easy at all, perhaps also because its construction, operation, and use involve multiple disciplines.
Isaac Asimov’s Laws of Robotics
The three laws of robotics first appeared in 1942 in a short story by Isaac Asimov entitled “Vicious circle”, published in the science fiction magazine Astounding Science-Fiction. This story (and subsequent ones), in fact, helped to change the science fiction narrative of the time by transforming the vision of robots which, up to Asimov’s stories, were seen and told as evil and dangerous beings for humans.
The positronic robots protagonists of the stories born from the imagination and from Asimov’s pen, if designed well and not used improperly, cannot be dangerous or risky for humans because they respond to certain principles of safety (the first law of robotics), service ( the second law of robotics) and self-preservation (the third law of robotics) with which the behavior of positronic robots (robots with positronic brains) was regulated.
Here’s what the three laws of robotics say:
1) first law: a robot cannot harm a human being nor can it allow a human being to receive harm due to its lack of intervention;
2) second law: a robot must obey the orders given by human beings, as long as these orders do not go against the first law;
3) third law: a robot must protect its existence, as long as the safeguarding of it does not conflict with the first or second law.
The three laws of robotics soon became very popular enough to push other writers to use them, without ever mentioning them clearly (Asimov was jealous of them and considered them His Laws), and even to make the narration and the stories of destructive robots almost disappear.
In some of his latest stories, Asimov postulates the existence of a fourth law, superior in importance to the other three called the Zero Law.
How robots work: structure and Characteristics
What is a robot made of?
To create a Robot it is necessary to have skills in mechanics, electronics, and computer science, today converging in the so-called mechatronic engineering but to be able to use it in increasingly complex contexts and with increasingly advanced functionality and capabilities (autonomy of action, automatic learning, decision-making and implementation, etc.)
it becomes necessary to extend knowledge also on the front of artificial intelligence and subjects related to neuroscience, psychology, logic, mathematics, biology, physiology, linguistics, and indirectly also to subjects such as philosophy, sociology and ethics.
Despite their different types, shapes, and fields of use, robots share three basic components that must be present in any type of them.
The robot is usually made of plastic or metal, and it consists of five parts:
Control Structure (control bodies): The control organs act as connectors between perception and action and are the systems that ensure that the robot performs the activities for which it was developed and/or is used with the degree of precision and strength programmed.
The control structure is given by actuators (electric motors, hydraulic or pneumatic systems, etc.) and control algorithms (for driving the actuators), it can be said that it represents the brain of the robot.
Mechanical construction: such as wheels and motors that help the robot to move, and these parts require some kind of energy to work, such as water, electricity, or perhaps even air.
Sensors: help the robot to know the surrounding places, both internal and external. It allows for determining the size, shape, and orientation of surrounding objects. The robot was also able to measure the amount of pressure needed to hold objects without damaging them.
The degrees of freedom of robots
Among the properties of the mechanical system, we find the degrees of freedom, which express the level of technological complexity of a robot as regards its movements. This is a topic usually associated with kinematics, due to the fact that a robot is defined in physics as an open kinematic chain of rigid bodies connected by joints, which in turn can be prismatic in nature, when they allow translation, rather than toroidal.
In their generic sense, the number of degrees of freedom corresponds to the number of variables necessary to determine the position of a point in space. In the Cartesian coordinate system, the position is defined by three variables (x, y, z), which become six if we also consider the rotations around the axes, appreciable in the case of three-dimensional entities.
In the case of simple manipulators, the degrees of freedom can be limited to six, while they rise considerably in the case of anthropomorphic robots, whose appearance, although stylized, is admittedly inspired by that of man.
In fact, the computation of the degrees of freedom of a robot considers the sum of the degrees of freedom of each of its components. In the case of a humanoid manipulator, it is therefore easy to imagine how it is possible to obtain very high values, if we consider that a robotic hand, often the most complex technological element to engineer, can overcome 10 degrees of freedom by itself, since each finger it is composed of several articulated arms.
Types of Robots
Autonomous robots are machines that can perceive their surroundings using unique sensors and make judgments that are relevant to the setting in which they operate.
This is made feasible by many learning methods, including machine learning and artificial intelligence techniques.
Unlike non-autonomous robots, an autonomous robot’s software does not function in a deterministic manner but rather allows the machine to self-learn from environmental data detected by its sensors, allowing it to manage its behavior in an increasingly refined manner.
Non-autonomous robots: These are machines that are controlled by software that informs them on all aspects of the operations to be performed. They can also be operated directly by humans via remote control systems.
In the first situation, we find industrial robots working on assembly lines, whereas in the second case, a classic example is made up of remotely controllable drones, rather than bomb-disposal robots involved in inspecting high-risk areas and defusing potentially lethal threats to humans.
The healthcare sector is characterized by many activities that can be made more efficient by automation. This consideration would be enough to make it a privileged field of action for robotics. Its applications are in fact constantly growing, to the point that medical robotics is starting to make history in itself.
It includes all the robots that give life to the so-called Smart Home, and the applications of intelligent home automation. Home automation provides IoT systems with interconnected devices, which include the classic robot vacuum cleaners/floor cleaners, kitchen robots, robotic lawnmowers, robotic cleaners and guard robots, just to mention those with household appliance functions, already widely used in our houses.
Domestic robots are currently very popular on the market and it is no coincidence that their selling price is also decidedly more accessible than that of systems with a similar level of complexity, but sectored in other areas. Among the robots active in the domestic space but oriented towards the relationship with people and animals there is a more specific category, that of entertainment robots, or social robots.
These include all types of robots that can operate in space and unmanned observation robots, for example, the robots used on the International Space Station and NASA.
Space exploration is one of the fields of choice for the use of robots. The reason is twofold. we must consider that today we know how to send a robot to Mars or other planets, but we still don’t know how to get a human crew to arrive and return safely.
So if we want to know something about Mars or some other planet in the Solar System we are forced to send robots, for example to analyze the soil and the atmosphere.
On the other hand, it must be considered that radio signals, even if they propagate at the speed of light, that is about 300,000 km / s, can take several seconds or minutes to reach us from another planet, and just as many to make the reverse path from Earth to the planet. Therefore, controlling in real-time at this distance, from the Earth, a machine operating on Mars is practically impossible: you would risk sending the order to turn right to avoid an obstacle when it is too late and the vehicle has already run over. The obstacle itself.
Rovers (literally “wanderers”), such as NASA’s Spirit and Opportunity, arrived on Mars at the end of 2003, and were, for example, robots capable of moving, analyzing the environment, avoiding obstacles, and transmitting images. But subsequent generations will be able to carry on themselves real chemical laboratories to analyze the samples of Martian soil that they have taken directly from the surface.
The international space station is home to many robots, which went into action at different times. Relatively recently, the Robonaut R1 and R2 have been introduced, robots equipped with artificial intelligence capable of supporting the crew of astronauts in conducting the scientific experiments that characterize most of the day in orbit.
The defense industry has always been a source of great research and development for new robotic systems, capable of subsequently evolving towards civilian objectives. Recently, attention has focused particularly on aerial and ground drones, capable of carrying out high-risk operations without compromising the safety of the military.
This condition makes it possible to carry out operations that human limits would otherwise make impossible, such as staying in a hostile environment for consecutive hours and days, rather than in all those situations in which it is in no way convenient to jeopardize human safety, which can benefit most by remotely piloting the drone.
It is not about armed aircraft but about many applications capable of safely solving a need very often dedicated to disarmament.
This is the case of the well-known bomb disposal robots, capable of identifying an explosive and neutralizing it, thanks to the remote command and supervision of the military, who in this way are not directly exposed to the serious consequences that the smallest error of assessment could entail. At worst, the damage would be absorbed solely by the robot.
It is a robotics discipline, linked to AI, which designs simple robots based on the behaviors and attitudes of social insects. These robots can solve complex tasks, as a group, that an individual would not be able to accomplish.
The Benefits of Robotics
Safety: This is the most prominent feature of using robots, as it protects humans from working in dangerous conditions such as high temperatures, handling some sharp tools, or even working underwater.
Speed: The robot does not need a break or time off, does not ask to leave early in the work, and does not feel stressed when working hours’ increase. Also, he does not need to be invited to staff meetings or training sessions and can work at any time which speeds up production.
Coordination: Robots do not need to divide their attention among many things and their work is never dependent on others.
Elaborate work: The work of a robot is always characterized by mastery, as it is programmed to do its work with high accuracy, so it is less prone to error.
Creating jobs: The robot needs people to monitor and supervise. And the more robots we need, the more people we’ll need to monitor, or even make, robots.
Educational Apps and Games for Kids
Lego Education Wedo 2.0
Robots stand out among the games. Lego Education Wedo 2.0 is a robot kit for budding kids, an educational robotics tool designed for primary school kids, ages 7 and up.
With Lego WeDo 2.0 bricks, the little ones can learn to build and program, giving vent to their creativity. The kit includes 280 bricks, a motor and two sensors, one for movement and one for tilt.
By assembling the pieces it is possible to obtain robots of various shapes and sizes or to realize robotics and science projects of increasing difficulty. Either way, the goal is to improve students’ problem-solving skills and apply logic.
The robots created with Lego WeDo 2.0 are programmable via Bluetooth by downloading a software – equipped with a drag and drop interface (with virtual objects that can be dragged and dropped) – compatible with Windows, iOS, Mac and Android. Alternatively – only for PC and Mac – you can also use Scratch, a simple and intuitive visual programming language.
Always among the most innovative technological games, LittleBits is an easy-to-use electronic module platform that allows you to create anything your imagination suggests in a few minutes: from a remote-controlled car to a smart home device, from an alarm to a lamp.
LittleBits modules are connected to each other via magnets, therefore no welding, wiring and programming are necessary; for this reason, they are also ideal for the little ones. Thanks to LittleBits, children can be introduced to the world of electronics without having to tinker with bare wires. The engineers of tomorrow can already start creating!
mBot Ranger is a 3-in-1 transformable robot designed to make children passionate about the world of programming, electronics and robotics. It is possible to direct and control mBot Ranger via Bluetooth or 2.4G, it is programmable using mBlock or it can be programmed in C / C ++ directly in the Arduino environment. The strong point of this robot lies precisely in the programming which has a simple and intuitive approach, able to quickly switch from graphic to textual programming. In short, all that remains is to start assembling. Age: 8+
Bee-Bot and Blue-Bot
And who says educational robotics is only for adults? Bee-Bot and Blue-Bot are robots specially designed to bring primary and preschool children closer to robotics. They are able to memorize and execute a series of basic commands to move on pre-built routes. Bee Bot and Blue-Bot can be used via tablet or smartphone thanks to the specially dedicated app (downloadable on both iOS and Android). So even the little ones can approach programming, and discover the mechanical parts of robots, but also learn geometric shapes and count. Age: 3+.
LEGO Mindstorms EV3-31313
A set that combines educational robotics with the timeless charm of Lego bricks! LEGO Mindstorms EV3-31313 is a set that combines bricks and programming to build a bespoke robot: a humanoid, a snake, a racing truck and much more. The set includes instructions for creating five different types of robots, but the only real limit is … the imagination! The robot is built and programmed with the intuitive “on the go” EV3 Programmer app (downloadable on both iOS and Android) which allows you to customize and control the robot’s actions. Age: 10+.
Learning to code before you even know how to read? Here is the challenge of Cubetto, a wooden robot that teaches the basics of programming. The smiling little robot moves on wheels and is controlled via Bluetooth with a perforated wooden tablet, in which several pieces of four different colors are inserted depending on the action you want Cubetto to perform. By placing the pieces one after the other, children will be able to compose the action of the robot. A nice and fun first approach to the world of programming and robotics. Age: 3+
Colorful, fun and with a thousand functions. It’s Dash, a small programmable robot designed for children. It has some special features: it can move freely through the wheels, it has sound sensors to stop in front of obstacles and it reacts to dancing and singing. Not only that, but the robot can be programmed through various apps, available for both Apple and Android devices, with increasing difficulty so as to accompany children in always different and stimulating challenges. The apps use a visual programming language, which makes programming more fun and intuitive. Age: 6+.
Thymio is an educational robot with an essential style that is able to perform numerous tasks with a simple and immediate programming language. Thymio follows your hand, avoids obstacles, and uses infrared sensors to communicate with other nearby robots. Thymio can be programmed with icons, text or both and it is possible to make changes to the code by programming even remotely. Not only that, the style of Thymio makes it customizable in a thousand different ways, giving vent to the creativity and imagination of the little ones (and not only!). Age: 6+.
My Planet – Robot
How does a robot move and see? Children are often full of questions about robots and how they work. The book My Robot Planet, published by Editoriale Scienza, tries to answer these questions! The volume is designed to talk to children about robotics, explaining the basics and proposing games and activities. In short, not only words but also many experiments thanks to which children can write a program, understand the algorithms and create a real robot. Age: 6+