Laser welding by a robot
Laser welding by a robot

The word ‘robot’ originates from the Czech word for forced labour or serf. It was introduced by playwright Karel Capek, whose ficional robotic inventions were much like Dr Frankenstein’s monsters—creatures created by chemical and biological methods rather than mechanical. But the current mechanical robots of popular culture are not much different from these fictionalbiological creations.

The International Standards Organization (ISO) definesa robot as an automatically-controlled, re-programmable, multi-purpose and manipulative machine, with or without locomotion, for use in industrial automation applications.

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Robotics is a fieldof multi-discipline engineering that deals with design, development and application of robots and the use of computer for their manipulation and processing.

Evolution of robotics
The history of robotics can be traced back to ancient Greece. According to Greek mythology, the Greek god of fire and forge—Hephaestus—was served by mechanical robots. Another historical record suggests an ancient Egypt origin for robotics, where priests used steam-activated mechanisms to open the doors of their temple.

Before the first electrician was born, the earliest reference to a robot was in ancient China, in the form of an organic robot given by an artificer called Yan Shi to King Mu of Zhou around 1000 BC. The robot was made of leather and glue with actual human organs, and it ceased functioning when the organs were removed.

It was around 350 BC when veteran Greek mathematician Archytas constructed a mechanical bird named ‘pigeon’—a robot powered by steam, which could fl. It was the firs recorded model airplane and a milestone in the history of robotics.

Between 1500 and 1800, odd mechanical marvels were springing up all over Europe. Leonardo Da Vinci was the next known robot designer after the ancient period. He invented a mechanical man in knight’s armour. John Dee of England invented a flying wooden beetle during the Elizabethan era. Another machine was Vaucanson’s ‘digesting duck’ in 1739, which was able to annoy real ducks, quack, eat grain and produce fake faeces. The duck was even referred to by Voltaire, albeit rather cryptically: “Without the duck of Vaucanson you have nothing to remind you of the glory of France.”

Isaac asimov’s laws of robotics
Law zero. A robot may not injure humanity or, through inaction, allow humanity to come to harm.

First law. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.

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Second law. A robot must obey orders given by human beings, except where such orders would conflct with the first law.

Third law. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protec-tion does not conflictwith the firstor second law.

Basic requirements of a robotic system
Some basic features of a robot include:

Mobility. It possesses some form of mobility.

Programmability. It implies computational or symbol-manipulative capabilities that a designer can combine as desired. So the robot is basically a computer, which can be programmed to accomplish a large variety of tasks. After being programmed, it operates automatically.

Sensors. Sensors sense the environment and give useful feedback to the device.

Mechanical capability. Robots act according to the environment rather than merely functioning as a data processing or computational device.

Flexibility. Robots operate with a range of programs and manipulate and transport materials in a variety of ways.

Robotics, then and now
1801 A punch-card-controlled textile machine called Jacquard loom
1890 First autonomous vehicles (Tesla)
1922 First reference to ‘robot’ in Capek’s play Rossum’s Universal Robots
1938 Pollard and Roselund devised programmable paint sprayer
1946 DeVol—a general-purpose magnetic playback device for controlling machines
1946 Eckert & Mauchly devised ENIAC electronic computer
1948 MIT Prof. Wiener published Cybernetics
1952 First numerical control machine built at MIT
1954 Duvoll designed first programmable robot (Unimation—first robot company)
1959 Planet Corporation marketed the first commercially available robot
1962 GM installed first industrial robot on an assembly line
1964 Artificial Intelligence labs opened at MIT and SRI
1967 Mark II robot imported to Japan for paint spraying
1968 SRI built Shakey—first mobile robot operated using AI techniques
1970 First robot arm developed at Stanford
1973 T#—first minicomputer-controlled industrial robot (used extensively in the industry)
1976 Robot arms used on Viking 1 and 2 space probes
1977 ASEA (Europe) built first microcomputer-controlled robot
1980 s and on Rapid growth in the robot industry (Japan becomes the biggest player)


Scope of robotics
Robotics requires the application of mechanical engineering, electrical/electronic engineering, computer-based integrated manufacturing, biological mechanics and software engineering.

Vaucanson’s digesting duck developed in 1739
Vaucanson’s digesting duck developed in 1739

A good depth in following major subjects is required to deal with robotics technology:
1. Artificial intelligenc
2. Engineering physics (mechanics)
3. Computer-aided design and computer-aided manufacturing
4. Computational geometry and simulation
5. Robot motion and path plan-ning/detection
6. Electronic control, communica-tion and navigation systems
7. Material science and technology
8. Optical engineering

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Robots are being used in industries, nuclear science, sea-exploration, servicing of electric signals transmission, designing of bio-medical equipment, etc.

The interdisciplinary field of roboics also findsapplications to pursue research in various sectors. A good background in mechanics, control and algorithms is the primary requirement for doing any work in robotics. In addition to this, if one would like to get involved in aerial robotics such as unmanned aircrafts, the basic knowledge of aerodynamics and aircraft mechanics is essential.

Robotics can be broadly divided into mechanical design and control algorithms. There is lot of research happening to improve the motion of robots through a good structural design and enhance their efficiencyand adaptability through better control design, computer vision and artificialintelligence.

Standardisation is a major hurdle. As no standard operating systems and software are currently in use, there exists diversity in the possible configurationsin which a robot can be built and also in the hardware used. It is often necessary to write programming codes from scratch when dealing with new robots.

Other issues such as concurrency, cost, compliance control, robot locomotion (particularly for legged, amphibious and flying robots), humancomputer interactions and cognitive computer vision are also facing a great deal of scrutiny with considerable research going on in each area.


A high level of specialisation is required to work on any particular aspect of robotics. Hence there are not too many options for taking up robotics as a degree itself, especially at the undergraduate level. Robotics still remains a popular course as an elective subject for engineering students.

Opportunities in india
Innovation coupled with consolidated research and development in robot technology has catapulted India’s scientificposition to a level that equals other advanced countries in recent years. It is, however, a known fact that robots are not widely used by Indian companies. Out of 600 to 700 robots widely used in India, most are used in engineering institutes and research organisations (see Tables I and II).

Robotics education is taking shape and many universities are introducing courses in robotics and automation at the postgraduate level as main or elective subjects. Seminars, workshops and conferences are also conducted by universities and institutes at regular intervals to project the recent developments in robotics technologies at national and international levels. These activities have inspired a notable number of under-graduate students to pursue higher studies in the field of robotics and autmation in India and abroad. Students’ participation in various robotics contests, meets and expos at international level has also increased marginally in recent years from India. Private institutes play a big role in robotics training for participation in these events.

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Research on robotics and related technologies is being carried out at various centres to explore the possible applications of robotics in various fields (refer Table II)


In India, studies related to robot technology and its implications are supported by the Department of Science and Technology (DST) and Department of Scientificand Industrial Research. The DST, Department of Information Technology and Ministry of Earth Sciences (formerly Department of Ocean Development), facilitates R&D in various areas of national interest.

Future of robotics
There is no limit to the applications of robotics technology. These range from household to deep sea, space to classroom, and medical to communication. Humanoid robots will impact various aspects of our lives from our workplace to healthcare. In the near future, robots with artificial cognition may develop a will of their own and potentially turn against people spontaneously. To produce intelligent human-like robots that are able to have their own thoughts and take independent actions, technology has to incorporate into the machines a stable and conscientious mindset.

For serving the society in the form of a teaching tool, one may consider a robo-teacher. Incorporating more knowledge at the university level, there might be a robo-professor, who would possibly complete a teaching module from a remote place via the Internet.

In the future, we may even order a robot-replica that speaks, reacts, responds and behaves just like us, preserving our essence in artificial form for eternity. But robotics research is still in infancy and many targets need to be met before all this becomes a reality. So we can follow the saying: “The Road to success is always under construction.”
Subhranshu Sekhar Samal is a scientist-C at the Centre for Nanoscience & Nanotechnology, Chennai, Atirek Wribhu is a final-year UG student in mechanical & production engineering at Sathyabama University, Chennai, and Dr S. Sathyamurthy is a scientist-G and former additional director (electronics) of CVRDE, DRDO, Chennai. Dr Sathyamurthy is presently working as chief consulting scientist at Centre for Robotics, Sathyabama University, Chennai