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How Robots Work


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Semi-technical reading for German university students with key words translated into German.

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How Robots Work

  1. 1. Technical English for Native German Speakers HOW ROBOTS (ROBOTER) WORK by Tom Harris, as modified by Dr. Harvey Utech (German translations of word stems added by Utech) On the most basic level, human beings are made up of five major components: • A body structure • A muscle system to move the body structure • A sensory (sensorisch) system that receives information about the body and the surrounding (umliegend) environment • A power source to activate the muscles and sensors • A brain (Gehirn) system that processes (bearbeiten) sensory information and tells the muscles what to do Of course, we also have some intangible (nicht greifbar) attributes, such as intel- ligence and morality, but on the physical level, the list above covers (umfassen) it. A robot is made up of the very same components. A typical robot has a movable (beweglich) physical structure, a motor of some sort (irgendein . . .), a sensor system, a power supply (Stromversorgung) and a computer "brain" that controls all of these elements. Essentially, robots are man-made versions of animal life -- they are machines that replicate (nachbilden) human and animal behavior (Be- nehmen). In this article, we shall explore the basic concept of robotics and find out how ro- bots do what they do. The broadest definition (Bestimmung) defines a robot as anything that a lot of people recognize (erkennen) as a robot. Most roboticists (people who build ro- bots) use a more precise (exakt) definition. They specify that robots have a repro- grammable brain (a computer) that moves a body (Gehäuse). In the next section, we'll look at the major elements found in most robots today. Robot Basics The vast majority of robots do have several qualities (Eigenschaft) in common. First of all, almost all robots have a movable body. Some only have motorized wheels, and others have dozens of movable segments, typically made of metal or plastic (Kunststoff). Like the bones in your body, the individual segments are connected together with joints (Gelenke). Robots spin wheels and pivot (sich drehen) jointed segments (jointed-arm-robot = Gelenkarmroboter) with some sort of actuator (Betätigungsglied). Some ro- bots use electric motors and solenoids (Magnetspule) as actuators; some use a hydraulic (hydraulisch) system; and some use a pneumatic (druckluftbetätigt) system (a system driven by compressed gases). Robots may use all these actuator types. A robot needs a power source to drive these actuators. Most robots either have a battery or they plug into (Stecker in die Steckdose) the wall. Hydraulic robots licensed under * Page 1 of 7
  2. 2. Technical English for Native German Speakers also need a pump to pressurize (unter Druck setzen) the hydraulic fluid, and pneumatic robots need an air compressor or compressed air tanks. The actuators are all wired to an electrical circuit. The circuit powers electrical motors and solenoids directly, and it activates the hydraulic system by manipu- lating electrical valves. The valves determine the pressurized fluid's path (Gang) through the machine. To move a hydraulic leg (Bein), for example, the robot's controller would open the valve leading from the fluid pump to a piston cylinder attached to that leg. The pressurized fluid would extend (verlängern) the piston, swiveling (sich drehen) the leg forward. Typically, in order to move their seg- ments in two directions, robots use pistons that can push both ways. The robot's computer controls everything attached to the circuit. To move the ro- bot, the computer switches on all the necessary motors and valves. Most robots are reprogrammable -- to change the robot's behavior, you simply write a new program to its computer. Not all robots have sensory systems, and few have the ability to see, hear, smell (riechen) or taste (schmecken). The most common robotic sense is the sense of movement -- the robot's ability to monitor (überwachen) its own motion. A stan- dard design uses slotted (geschlitzt) wheels attached to the robot's joints. An LED (light-emitting diode) on one side of the wheel shines a beam of light through the slots to a light sensor on the other side of the wheel. When the robot moves a particular joint, the slotted wheel turns. The slots break the light beam as the wheel spins. The light sensor reads the pattern of the flashing light and transmits (übersenden) the data to the computer. The computer can tell exactly how far the joint has swiveled based on this pattern. This is the same basic system used in computer mice. These are the basic nuts and bolts (praktische Grundlagen) of robotics. Roboti- cists can combine these elements in an infinite number of ways to create robots of unlimited (grenzenlos) complexity. In the next section, we'll look at one of the most popular designs, the robotic arm. The Robotic Arm The term robot comes from the Czech word robota, generally translated as "forced labor." This describes the majority of robots fairly well. Most robots in the world are designed for heavy, repetitive (sich wiederholend) manufacturing work. They handle tasks that are difficult, dangerous or boring (langweilig) to human be- ings. The most common manufacturing robot is the robotic arm. A typical robotic arm is made up of seven metal segments, joined by six joints. The computer controls the robot by rotating individual step motors connected to each joint (some larger arms use hydraulics or pneumatics). Unlike ordinary motors, step motors move in exact increments. This allows the computer to move the arm very precisely, repeating exactly the same movement over and over again. The robot uses motion sensors to make sure it moves just the right amount. An industrial robot with six joints closely resembles a human arm -- it has the equivalent of a shoulder, an elbow and a wrist (Handgelenk). Typically, the shoulder is mounted to a stationary (stehend) base structure rather than to a movable body. This type of robot has six degrees of freedom (Freiheitsgrade), licensed under * Page 2 of 7
  3. 3. Technical English for Native German Speakers meaning it can pivot in six different ways. A human arm, by comparison, has seven degrees of freedom. Your arm's job is to move your hand from place to place. Similarly, the robotic arm's job is to move an end effector (Endeffektor) from place to place. You can outfit (ausstatten) robotic arms with all sorts of (allerlei) end effectors, which are suited (geeignet) to a particular application. One common end effector is a simplified (vereinfacht) version of the hand, which can grasp (greifen) and carry different objects. Robotic hands often have built-in (eingebaut) pressure sensors that tell the computer how hard the robot is gripping (greifen) a particu- lar object. This keeps the robot from dropping or breaking whatever it's carrying. Other end effectors include blowtorches (Gasbrenner), drills and spray painters (Farbsprühdüsen). Industrial robots are designed to do exactly the same thing, in a controlled envi- ronment, over and over again. For example, a robot might twist (drehen) the caps (Deckel) onto peanut butter jars (Gefäß) coming down an assembly line (Fließband). To teach a robot how to do its job, the programmer guides (anleiten) the arm through the motions using a handheld controller. The robot stores the exact sequence of movements (Bewegungsabläufe) in its memory, and does it again and again every time a new unit comes down the assembly line. Most industrial robots work in automobile assembly lines, putting cars together. Robots can do a lot of this work more efficiently than human beings because they are so precise. They always drill in exactly the same place, and they always tighten (anziehen) bolts with the same amount of force, no matter how many hours they have been working. Manufacturing robots are also very important in the computer industry. It takes an incredibly (unglaublich) precise hand to put together a tiny (winzig) microchip. Mobile (beweglich) Robots Robotic arms are relatively easy to build and program because they only operate within a confined (begrenzt) area. Things get a bit trickier (mehr verzwickt) when you send a robot out into the world. The first obstacle is to give the robot a working locomotion (Bewegung) system. If the robot will only need to move over smooth (glatt) ground, wheels or tracks are the best option. Wheels and tracks can also work on rougher terrain (Gelände) if they are big enough. But robot designers often look to legs instead, because they are more adaptable (anpassungsfähig). Building legged robots also helps re- searchers understand natural locomotion -- it's a useful exercise in biological re- search. Typically, hydraulic or pneumatic pistons move robot legs back and forth (hin und her). The pistons attach to different leg segments just like muscles attach to different bones. It's a real trick getting all these pistons to work together properly. As a baby, your brain had to figure out (herausfinden) exactly the right combina- tion of muscle contractions (Muskelkontraktion) to walk upright (aufrecht) without falling over. Similarly, a robot designer has to figure out the right combi- nation of piston movements involved in walking and program this information into the robot's computer. Many mobile robots have a built-in balance system (a licensed under * Page 3 of 7
  4. 4. Technical English for Native German Speakers collection of gyroscopes, for example) that tells the computer when it needs to correct (korrigieren) its movements. Bipedal locomotion (walking on two legs) is inherently unstable, which makes it very difficult to implement (ausführen) in robots. To create more stable robot walkers, designers commonly look to the animal world, specifically insects. Six- legged insects have exceptionally (außergewöhnlich) good balance, and they adapt (anpassen) well to a wide variety of terrain. Some mobile robots are controlled by remote -- a human tells them what to do and when to do it. The remote control might communicate (kommunizieren) with the robot through an attached wire, or using radio or infrared signals. Re- mote robots, often called puppet (Marionette) robots, are useful for exploring (er- forschen) dangerous or inaccessible (unerreichbar) environments, such as the deep sea (Tiefsee) or inside a volcano (Vulkan). Some robots are only partially controlled by remote. For example, the operator might direct the robot to go to a certain spot, but not steer (steurern) it there -- the robot would find its own way. Autonomous Robots Autonomous robots can act on their own, independent of any controller. The ba- sic idea is to program the robot to respond a certain way to outside stimuli (An- regungen). The very simple bump-and-go robot is a good illustration of how this works. This sort of robot has a bumper sensor to detect obstacles. When you turn the robot on, it zips along (schnell wohin laufen) in a straight line. When it finally hits an obstacle, the impact pushes in its bumper sensor. The robot's program- ming tells it to back up (zurückgehen), turn to the right and move forward again, in response to every bump. In this way, the robot changes direction any time it encounters an obstacle. Advanced robots use more elaborate (ausgearbeitet) versions of this same idea. Roboticists create new programs and sensor systems to make robots smarter and more perceptive (scharfsinnig). Today, robots can effectively navigate a variety of environments. Simpler mobile robots use infrared or ultrasound sensors to see obstacles. These sensors work the same way as animal echolocation: The robot sends out a sound signal or a beam (Strahl) of infrared light and detects the signal's reflection. The robot locates the distance to obstacles based on how long it takes the signal to bounce back (zurückprallen). More advanced robots use stereo vision to see the world around them. Two cam- eras give these robots depth perception (Tiefenwahrnehmung), and image- recognition software gives them the ability to locate (auffinden) and classify vari- ous objects. Robots might also use microphones and smell sensors to analyze the world around them. Some autonomous robots can only work in a familiar, constrained (gezwungen) environment. Lawn-mowing robots, for example, depend on buried (begraben) border (Grenze) markers to define the limits of their yard. An office-cleaning ro- bot might need a map of the building in order to maneuver from point to point. licensed under * Page 4 of 7
  5. 5. Technical English for Native German Speakers More advanced robots can analyze and adapt to unfamiliar environments, even to areas with rough (uneben) terrain. These robots may associate certain terrain patterns with certain actions. A rover robot, for example, might construct a map of the land in front of it based on its visual sensors. If the map shows a very bumpy (holperig) terrain pattern, the robot knows to travel another way. This sort of system is very useful for exploratory robots that operate on other planets. Homebrew Robots Homebrew (selbst gebraut) robotics is a rapidly expanding subculture with a siz- able Web presence. Amateur roboticists cobble together (zusammenschustern) their creations using commercial robot kits, mail order components, toys and even old VCRs. Homebrew robots are as varied as professional robots. Some weekend roboticists tinker with (an etwas herumbasteln) elaborate (kompliziert) walking machines, some design their own service bots (i.e. robots) and others create competitive ro- bots. The most familiar competitive robots are remote control fighters like you might see on "BattleBots." These machines are not considered "true” robots be- cause they do not have reprogrammable computer brains. They're basically souped-up (frisiert) remote control cars. More advanced competitive robots are controlled by computer. Soccer robots, for example, play miniaturized soccer with no human input at all. A standard soccer bot team includes several individual robots that communicate with a central computer. The computer "sees" the entire soccer field with a video camera and picks out its own team members, the opponent's members, the ball and the goal based on their color. The computer processes this information every second and decides how to direct its team. Adaptable and Universal The personal computer revolution has been marked by extraordinary adaptability (Anpassungsfähigkeit). Standardized hardware and programming languages let computer engineers and amateur programmers build computers for their own particular purposes. Computer components are sort of like (derartig) art supplies -- they have an infinite number of uses. Most robots to date have been more like kitchen appliances (Gerät). Roboticists build them from the ground up (von Grund auf) for a fairly specific purpose. They don't adapt well to radically new applications. This situation may be changing. A company called Evolution Robotics is pioneer- ing the world of adaptable robotics hardware and software. The company hopes to carve out a niche for itself with easy-to-use "robot developer kits." The kits come with an open software platform tailored to a range of common ro- botic functions. For example, roboticists can easily give their creations the ability to follow a target, listen to voice commands and maneuver around obstacles. None of these capabilities are revolutionary from a technology standpoint, but it's unusual that you would find them in one simple package. The kits also come with common robotics hardware that connects easily with the software. The standard kit comes with infrared sensors, motors, a microphone licensed under * Page 5 of 7
  6. 6. Technical English for Native German Speakers and a video camera. Roboticists put all these pieces together with a souped-up (friesert) erector set -- a collection of aluminum body pieces and sturdy wheels. These kits aren't your run-of-the-mill (gewöhnlich) construction sets, of course. At upwards of $700, they're not cheap toys. But they are a big step toward a new sort of robotics. In the near future, creating a new robot to clean your house or take care of your pets while you're away might be as simple as writing a BASIC program to balance your checkbook. Robots and Artificial Intelligence Artificial intelligence (AI) is arguably (wohl) the most exciting field in robotics. It's certainly the most controversial (umstritten): Everybody agrees that a robot can work in an assembly line, but there's no consensus (Einigkeit) on whether a ro- bot can ever be intelligent. Like the term "robot" itself, artificial intelligence is hard to define. Ultimate AI would be a recreation (Neuerschaffung) of the human thought process (Denk- prozess) -- a man-made machine with our intellectual abilities. This would in- clude the ability to learn just about anything, the ability to reason (logisches Denkvermögen), the ability to use language and the ability to formulate original ideas. Roboticists are nowhere near achieving this level of artificial intelligence, but they have had made a lot of progress with more limited AI. Today's AI ma- chines can replicate (nachmachen) some specific elements of intellectual ability. Computers can already solve problems in limited realms (Reich). The basic idea of AI problem-solving is very simple, though its execution (Umsetzung) is compli- cated. First, the AI robot or computer gathers facts about a situation through sensors or human input. The computer compares this information to stored data and decides what the information signifies (bedeuten). The computer runs through various possible actions and predicts (voraussagen) which action will be most successful based on the collected information. Of course, the computer can only solve problems it is programmed to solve -- it does not have any generalized analytical ability. Chess (Schachspiel) computers are one example of this sort of machine. Some modern robots also have the ability to learn in a limited capacity. Learning robots recognize if a certain action (moving its legs in a certain way, for instance) achieved a desired result (navigating an obstacle). The robot stores (speichern) this information and attempts the successful action the next time it encounters (begegnen) the same situation. Again, modern computers can only do this in very limited situations. They can not absorb (aufnehmen) information like a human can. Some robots can learn by mimicking (nachmachen) human actions. In Ja- pan, roboticists have taught a robot to dance by demonstrating the moves them- selves. Some robots can interact socially. Kismet, a robot at M.I.T's Artificial Intelligence Lab, recognizes human body language and voice inflection (Tonfall) and responds appropriately (passend). Kismet's creators are interested in how humans and ba- bies interact, based only on tone of speech and visual cue (Hinweis). This low- level interaction could be the foundation of a human-like learning system. Kismet and other humanoid (menschenähnlich) robots at the M.I.T. AI Lab op- erate using an unconventional control structure. Instead of directing every action licensed under * Page 6 of 7
  7. 7. Technical English for Native German Speakers using a central computer, the robots control lower-level actions with lower-level computers. The program's director, Rodney Brooks, believes this is a more accu- rate model of human intelligence. We do most things automatically; we don't de- cide to do them at the highest level of consciousness. The real challenge (Herausforderung) of AI is to understand how natural intelli- gence works. Developing AI is not like building an artificial heart -- scientists don't have a simple, concrete (fest) model to work from. We do know that the brain contains billions (Milliarden) and billions of neurons, and that we think and learn by establishing electrical connections between different neurons. But we don't know exactly how all of these connections add up to (sich summieren auf) higher reasoning (Folgerung), or even low-level operations (Arbeitsvorgang). The complex circuitry seems incomprehensible (unbegreiflich). Because of this, AI research is largely theoretical. Scientists hypothesize on how and why we learn and think, and they experiment with their ideas using robots. Brooks and his team focus on humanoid robots because they feel that being able to experience the world like a human is essential to developing human-like intel- ligence. It also makes it easier for people to interact with the robots, which poten- tially (möglicherweise) makes it easier for the robot to learn. Just as physical robotic design is a handy (griffbereit) tool for understanding animal and human anatomy, AI research is useful for understanding how natural intelligence works. For some roboticists, this insight is the ultimate goal of de- signing robots. Others envision (sich vorstellen) a world where we live side-by- side with intelligent machines and use a variety of lesser robots for manual labor, health care and communication. A number of robotics experts predict that ro- botic evolution will ultimately turn us into cyborgs -- humans integrated with machines. Conceivably, people in the future could load their minds into a sturdy robot and live for thousands of years! licensed under * Page 7 of 7