April 20, 2021
WRITTEN BY:
Melinda Head

Robots Rock and the Party’s Not Over Yet

Advances in technology are opening up a whole new realm of possibilities

Robots have always been a fascination. The idea of machines doing our work or taking on their own lives has greatly fueled our imaginations.

With quantum computing and AI ramping up, we are on the precipice of being able to take robotics a giant step forward. It’s happening before our very eyes, though mostly seen in the commercial world where robotics is playing an increasingly important role. At a consumer level, drones are one of today’s most popular robotic applications, whether remotely controlled or flying autonomously, with software, onboard sensors and GPS working in conjunction with each other.

Until now, robots have essentially been control systems. A mechanical device is programmed to perform a specific task. Now, with more data inputs – be it from sensors or algorithms – robots can do more than just travel along X, Y, Z axes.

Automotive

Joseph Engelberger and George Devol are considered to be robotics pioneers. In 1961, their brainchild, the Unimate, was the first industrial robot to be integrated into an automotive production line, handling hot, dangerous, unpleasant and repetitive processes at the General Motors diecasting plant in Trenton, New Jersey.

The rest is history, big history … with hundreds of robots and cobots (collaborative robots that work alongside humans without fear of harm) now pumping out today’s vehicles. As one might expect, Tesla is a disruptor in this space, building simplification and efficiency into everything on the factory floor, including an army of robots and the recently announced automated Giga Press aluminum die-casting unit that creates a rear underbody for the Tesla Model Y SUV as a single piece, replacing 70 parts used in the previous, more conventional process.

“What really matters is the machine that builds the machine - the factory. And that is at least two orders of magnitude harder than the vehicle itself." (Elon Musk, CEO, Tesla)

Space Exploration

A chimpanzee named Ham successfully completed a suborbital space flight in 1961, followed by the first pilot-controlled space flight only 3 months later, and the first space walk by an American in 1965. Fast forward to 1981, when NASA needed a human-like arm to grab satellites and perform other functions in space. The solution chosen was the Canadarm, developed by Canada’s National Research Council for $108 million, and given free to NASA in exchange for an agreement to buy more.

The Canadarm was designed to function flawlessly in space with the dexterity of a human arm
The Canadarm was designed to function flawlessly in space with the dexterity of a human arm

First deployed on the space shuttle Columbia in 1981, the Canadarm went on to perform missions for Challenger, Discovery, Atlantis and Endeavour. Its shoulder had 60 degrees of freedom, its elbow had pitch movements, its wrist could pitch, roll and yaw, and a grappling device simulated the work of fingers. The robot’s “nerves” were copper, its “bones” were graphite-fiber synthetic tubes and its “muscles” were electric motors. Cameras on the device attached to an on-board computer (“brain”), allowing astronauts to control the robotic arm from inside the space shuttle.

Today the next gen Canadarm 2 is a permanent fixture of the International Space Station, where it has been conducting maintenance, moving equipment and supplies, supporting astronauts working in space and handling payloads since 2001.

Health

Healthcare is a fundamental part of people’s lives. I’m sure you’ll agree that nothing is more important than health. It is the largest component of non-wage compensation and accounts for about one-quarter of U.S. government spending.

There are so many needs in the healthcare sector and never enough resources. Robots are starting to lessen that burden, while providing a wealth of new benefits including greater technical precision, less pain, lower risk of infection, shorter recovery times and better outcomes. The use of robotics in more traditional applications is obvious, for example: dispensing prescriptions, disinfecting, assembling COVID test kits or analyzing samples.

Then there is the stuff that we formerly believed to be science fiction: a tiny robot drives through your body to perform an inspection, take a biopsy or cauterize a wound, therapy is delivered through blood vessels to a specific target site in the body – this is all possible today, and much more.

Plain Old Fun

Though not conceived for the joy of dancing, Boston Dynamics’ December 2020 promotion, showcasing a robot grooving to the 1962 hit “Do You Love Me?”, certainly put a smile on many peoples’ faces and racked up more than 30 million viewers. The Company was recently sold to Hyundai for almost $1 billion, after ownership stints with SoftBank and Alphabet, the parent company of Google.

Now that you’re in the groove yourself, we encourage you to download Quizefy so that you can STRUT YOUR SMART by answering our Robotics Quiz of the Day, available only today. By reading this blog, you now possess hints that will allow you to answer some of our robotics trivia questions correctly.

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About the Author

A serial entrepreneur, Melinda is a sociologist and statistician who believes there is no currency with greater value than knowledge

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