Drones, Droids & Other Types of Robots
From left to right: Virginia Tech's THOR, DARPA's test platform robot made by Boston Dynamics, and Raytheon's Guardian.
Whether traveling to locations humans can't reach or doing repetitive, mindless work faster and cheaper than their living counterparts, robots are everywhere. In 2008, more than 8.6 million industrial robots covered the globe, according to the International Federation of Robotics (IFR). What is a robot, and why are they so widespread?
A robot is an electric machine directed by a circuitry or a computer program, able to make some degree of choices based on its environment. Although most people tend to think of humanoid bodies first, the word "robot" can be applied to rovers, jointed arms, and guided vehicles.
The first robots were described by the ancient Greek poet Homer in "The Iliad." Although he did not use the term, he depicted golden maidservents that looked like real women, with speech and intelligence, but were not. The first use of the word came in the 1920 play "Rossum's Universal Robots" by Karel Čapek, a science fiction writer who based it on the Czech word for "serf laborer."
The first modern robot was developed by the American inventor George Devol in 1954. Dubbed Unimate, the robot arm was controlled by vacuum tubes. The first arm was sold to General Motors and used for die casting and spot welding, and it quickly caught on in the auto industry, the largest user of industrial robots today, according to the IFR.
Robots in the world
Robots in the world fall into two categories — industrial robots and service robots.
Like Unimate, industrial robots fit in factories, performing repetitive tasks faster and more efficiently than their human counterparts, with a lower chance of injury. The auto industry takes the lead in industrial robots around the world, averaging one robot for every 10 human workers. Electronics companies came in a close second in robots purchased in 2011, using robots to place tiny components with fantastic precision.
Industrial robots are also used in the rubber, plastic, food and beverage, and metal and machine industries. Some might offload goods from conveyor belts or help with packaging them. Automated guided vehicles can carry items around spacious buildings or warehouses. Some follow indicators, while others use lasers or mapping.
In 2011, the IFR estimated that there were over 1.15 million industrial robots in use around the world.
Service robots are split into two subcategories. Professional service robots are smaller than their industrial counterparts, but can also be significantly more expensive. Medical robots, which assist in surgery and therapy, are the most costly service robots, averaging $1.5 million, a price tag that includes accessories and servicing.
Forty percent of the professional service robots sold in 2011 went toward defense. Most of these robots were unmanned aerial vehicles, such as drones. Other defense robots might help humans safely diffuse bombs from a distance, or to detonate mines, clearing a safe road for humans to follow. Some military robots can fire weapons precisely when controlled by a human soldier, participating in ground-based combat.
In a complete deviation from the humanoid or boxy appearance most people apply to mechanical beings, snake-like robots can navigate through tight spaces. Some may serve in the medical field, where they can maneuver around internal organs, while others may be larger and capable of fighting fires. Snakebots can travel through rubble, assisting search and rescue teams.
Professional robots may help with milking, mining, or exploration of challenging or inaccessible terrain. Most of the probes launched into space since the 1960s qualify as robots. The Voyager satellites, traveling through the solar system, send information to Earth about the conditions they encounter. Perhaps the most recognizable space traveling robots are the rovers that explore the surface of Mars, such as Curiosity, which is part of NASA's Mars Science Laboratory mission.
Personal service robots are smaller, cheaper, and more common than their professional and industrial counterparts. Many help with domestic chores. The automated Roomba vacuum cleaner may be the most well known, but other similar robots assist with lawn mowing. Robots can also help the elderly and handicapped accomplish more than they are physically capable of alone. Personal transportation and home security and surveillance robots are expected to become more common in the near future.
Entertainment robots have an array of possibilities. Many of these are toys, though some fall under the educational category. Disney's Imagineers have created thousands of robots, from singing pirates to dancing bears to presidential automatons. Robot pets can substitute for real ones as companions for the elderly.
Androids — robots designed to look and act human, generally with a flesh-like outer covering rather than a metallic one — fit into the entertainment realm. Though most androids are found in science fiction, technological developments have resulted in androids that can change their expressions and even sing. Some day, such androids may function as astronauts.
Calculating how many service robots exist is challenging, as the smaller, cheaper robots may break sooner than their industrial counterparts, or be more quickly upgraded or replaced.
Nonhuman agents have been hitting popular culture since "The Iliad." Jewish golems, the clay giants of Norse myths, and statues that come to life are found in literature and legends across thousands of years.
More modern robots saturate fiction of the last century. Here are a few of the more famous examples:
Arguably one of the most famous robot pairs was C-3PO and R2-D2 from the six "Star Wars" films. The humanoid C-3PO was a protocol droid fluent in more than 6 million forms of communication, while R2-D2 served as an astromech, or automated mechanical droid, responsible for repair and flight navigation.
The 1951 movie, "The Day the Earth Stood Still," featured a humanoid robot named Gort that fired a powerful laser beam from its helmet to destroy the military weapons surrounding it. After going into a state of short-term hibernation, Gort later revives after an attack on his companion, Klaatu, killing two soldiers as he returns the alien body to their spaceship.
Science fiction writer Isaac Asmiov wrote more than 500 books, many of which featured robots. His "Three Laws or Robotics" continue to permeate the modern genre:
- A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
- A robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
- A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.
Robert Heinlein, also a notable science fiction writer, penned a number of works including a collection of nine stories under the title "I, Robot" that blend together to tell the fictional history of the robotic world.
Known for the phrase, "Danger, Will Robinson!" the B-9, Class M-3 General Utility Non-Theorizing Environmental Control Robot (often just called Robot) followed the Robinson family through their voyage on television's "Lost in Space"in the 1960s.
The domestic robot, Rosie, served the Jetson family in the cartoon that bears their name.
The comic science fiction series, "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy," which debuted as a radio show in the late 1970s and a series of novels in the 1980s, features Marvin the paranoid robot. Afflicted with a Genuine People Personality, Marvin suffers from depression and boredom because he is rarely assigned to work that will require his full power and mental capacity, but instead is forced to perform menial tasks.
Not all robots were friendly. The Cylons, a cybernetic civilization from the "Battlestar Galactica" television series, were responsible for almost decimating the human race.
Another killer robot showed up in the 1980s film, "The Terminator." According to the series, after the automated defense network, Skynet, attained self-awareness, it triggered a nuclear holocaust that nearly wiped out mankind. The Terminator was a robot sent back in time to target the leader of the human resistance, John Connor, by killing his mother before he was conceived (an attempt which paradoxically led to his conception). A later robot returned to target Connor himself as a child, while the original-style terminator traveled through time to protect the boy.
The artificially intelligent robotic car, KITT, was arguably the star of the 1980s television show "Knight Rider."
When lightning struck the Strategic Artificially Intelligent Nuclear Transport Number 5 in the 1980s movie "Short Circuit," it caused a malfunction that resulted in self-awareness. The robot, which takes the new name Johnny 5, then insists that it is alive.
The crew of the starship Enterprise, crossing the galaxy in the 1990s television show "Star Trek: The Next Generation," boasts an android named Data as its chief operations officer. Unable to feel emotion, Data constantly struggled to understand the humans around him.
Robot dogs have also made a showing in popular culture, ranging from K-9 on "Doctor Who" to the cartoon hero Jimmy Neutron's popular pet.