Understanding where the field of robotics is heading is more than guesswork. While much of the existing public concerns focus on discussing the potential issues that will arise with the advent of robots, in this article, we present a review of some of the most relevant milestones that happened in robotics over the last decades and our insight about the technologically feasible near future of robotics.
Robotics is called to be the next technological revolution. Many seem to agree that robots will have a tremendous impact over the following years and some are heavily betting on it. Companies are investing billions in buying others and public authorities are discussing legal frameworks to enable a coherent growth of robots.
Pre-Robots and first manipulators
But, what’s the origin of robots? To figure it out we’ll need to look quite a few decades ago, where different conflicts motivated the technological growth that eventually enabled companies to build the first digitally controlled mechanical arms to boost the performance obtained while executing different activities.
One those first and well documented robots was UNIMATE (considered by many the first industrial robot), a programmable machine funded by General Motors used to create a production line with only robots. UNIMATE helped improve the production at the time. This motivated other companies and research centers to actively dedicate resources to robotics which boosted the growth of the field.
Sensors were not typically included in robots until the 70’s. Starting from 1968, a second generation of robots appeared which integrated sensors. These robots were able to react to its environment and offer responses that met different scenarios.
Relevant investments were observed during this period in robotics. Industrial players all around the world were attracted by the advantage that robots promised.
Worldwide industrial robots — Era of robots
Many consider that the Era of Robots started in 1980. Billions of dollars were invested by companies all around to world to automate basic tasks in their assembly lines and sales of industrial robots grew 80% above what had happened in previous years.
Key technologies for the future of robots appeared within these years. General Internet access was extended in 1980, Ethernet became a standard in 1983 (IEEE 802.3), the Linux kernel was announced in 1991 and soon after that real-time patches started appearing on top of Linux.
The robots created between 1980 and 1999 belong to what we call the third generation of robots. Robots that were reprogrammable and included dedicated controllers. Robots populated many industrial sectors and were used for a wide variety of activities: painting, soldering, moving, assembling, etc.
By the end of the 90s, companies started thinking about robots outside of the industrial environment. Several companies created promising concepts that later will represent an inspiration for future roboticists. Among the robots created within this period, we highlight two:
- The first LEGO Mindstorms kit (1998), a set consisting of 717 pieces including LEGO bricks, motors, gears, different sensors, and a RCX Brickwith an embedded microprocessor to construct various robots using the exact same parts. The kit allowed to teach the principles of robotics. Creative projects have appeared over the years showing the potential of interchangeable hardware in robotics. Within a few years the LEGO Mindstorms kit became the most successful project that involved robot part interchangeability.
- Sony’s AIBO (1999), the world’s first entertainment robot. Widely used for research and development, Sony brought robotics to everyone with a $1,500 robot that included a distributed hardware and software architecture. The OPEN-R architecture involved the use of modular hardware components — e.g. appendages that can be easily removed and replaced to change the shape and function of the robots — , and modular software components that can be interchanged to modify their behavior and movement patterns. OPEN-R represented an inspiration for future robotic frameworks and showed promise to minimize the need for programming individual movements or responses.
Both products made use of interchangeable hardware and software modules, but these efforts have never been translated to industrial environments.
Integration effort was identified as one of the main issues within robotics and particularly related to robots operating in industry. A common infrastructure typically reduces the integration effort by facilitating an environment where components can simply be connected and interoperate. Each of the infrastructure-supported components are optimized for such integration at their conception and the infrastructure handles the integration effort. At that point, components could come from different manufacturers, yet when supported by a common infrastructure, they will interoperate.
Sony’s AIBO and LEGO’s Mindstorms kit were built upon this principle and both presented common infrastructures. Even though they came from the consumer side of robotics, one could argue that their success was strongly related to the fact that both products made use of interchangeable hardware and software modules. The use of a common infrastructure proved to be one of the key advantages of these technologies, but those concepts were never translated to industrial environments. Instead, each manufacturer, in an attempt to dominate the market started creating their own “robot programming languages”.