Robots surround us and teach us. Therefore, it is important that everyone become more familiar with how they run aspects of our lives and our careers. This doesn’t mean robots are scary. Like any technology, they have benefits that we take advantage of. To better understand robots, we can begin by briefly examining how our concepts about robots have changed over several thousand years. After defining robots I will touch on some of their benefits before demonstrating amateur robotics.
Stories about robotics can be traced to the Greeks and earlier. One example are the Golden Maidens of Hephaestus. Hephaestus is the Greek god of fire and forge. Stories tell how he created golden replicas of people filled with gems. These assistants of Hephaestus were intelligent and supported his work as a blacksmith.
Once we began telling stories of our creation by a higher power, it wasn’t much an intellectual leap to imagine that we could be creators. It wasn’t until the 12 th century, when Europeans were designing clocks and clock-like mechanisms that this became possible at a rudimentary level. Being a little behind the times, similar devices were created in Asia several centuries earlier. Nonetheless, once a mechanical clock can be built, designing other types of moving objects becomes possible. Legends exist of automatons that amazed the public with their capabilities of movement. Little record exists of their engineering; however, we know a few of the more famous ones were actually fakes. Instead of being clock work automatons, they were secretly teleoperated by people.
The industrial revolution began in the 18 th century. One reason the revolution became possible is the beginning wide spread use of automation. The Industrial Revolution in the 18 th century brought about the first practical versions of the robot. The Jacquard loom is one example. It was programmed using punch cards. The holes punched in cards controlled the pattern in its weaving.
The first mechanical man to appear in modern literature was created by L. Frank Baum, the author of the Oz stories. One of his stories included a clock-work robot that required rewinding on occasion. The king named his mechanical servant Tik-Tok because of the sound his robot servant made when being rewound.
The word robot traces its origins to the 1921 movie, Rossum’s Universal Robots. The movie is a story and a warning about creating artificial people to work as servants. Eventually, the robots rebelled against humanity and killed them off. The word robot comes from Robota or Robotnik, a Slavic word meaning serf. RUR was not the first movie depicting robots. They appeared in some of the first movies 25 years earlier.
One of the most awesome robots of the past was created by Metropolis’ brilliant inventor, Rotwang. The shape of his machine person was changed to match the likeness of Maria, a sympathizer for the working masses who lived beneath Metropolis. The transformation scene was stunning for 1927, as was the costume and movement of his maschinenmensch.
The 1939 World's Fair in New York focused on the world of the future. For one example, one could visit the Westinghouse Pavilion to witness a demonstration of a robot named Electro and his dog, Sparko. Electro and Sparko were motor and gear-driven machines capable of performing stunts like walking and smoking.
Prior to the 1950s, robot stories tended to follow the Frankenstein motif. You know the story, man aspires to be a god and makes creations of his own. The creations then turn on their creator and destroy him. However this was not the story for two classic 1950 science fiction movies, The Day the Earth Stood Still from 1951 and Forbidden Planet from 1956. The robots from these movies were benevolent servants. In the case of Gort, the robot was one of a race of policing robots that patrolled the galaxy and kept the peace. And Robbie was absolutely incapable of harming people.
Robotics, the study of robots, and the term roboticist, a robotics engineer, are two words created by the prolific scientific fiction writer Isaac Asimov. Asimov unknowingly coined the term robotics from the word electronics. Asimov is further known for his three laws of robotics. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm. A robot must obey the orders given to 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 Laws.
Robots in the media come in various shapes and sizes as we can see in the movie, Star Wars. When robots are essentially people-shaped, we call them androids. Androids is not gender specific, but when it is meant that way, then a female android is called a gynoid. The term android can be traced to the 13 th century in reference to a legend of the automaton created by Albertus Magnus. George Lucas coined the term droid from android while Phillip K. Dick derived the term Andy as a derogatory term for human-like robots.
You’ve all seen some robot or even worked with some. So what is a robot? Any input?
Here’s one definition that I have found. I like this definition for its simplicity and completeness. A robot is an autonomous system It is part of the physical world It can sense its environment It can react to its sensor inputs So a robot is a physical object that operates on its own without human input, other than what was needed to create it in the first place. A robot can detect the world around it and can then act based on one or more of its sensor inputs. This means… A spreadsheet program running on a PC is not a robot A toy RC car is not a robot A mechanical wind up walking toy is not a robot
Robots can start out very simple and then grow into a complex automaton. Therefore, designing and building robots from scratch requires someone who is a little bit of an electrical engineer, enjoys mechanical engineering, and can glue these two engineering fields together with programming. To be a roboticist means you are an multidisciplinary person with a wide breadth of knowledge and skills.
As with any activity outside of watching television, there are benefits for those involved with robotics. One characteristic of robotics that makes it valuable is that it requires solving complex problems. Teaching with robotics can be an example of problem-based learning. With problem-based learning, people have a difficult problem to solve and in the process, develop thinking skills and content knowledge. People tend to work harder if the problem incorporates real world examples. For many people, challenges are more motivating when they are less abstract. This means good robot-related problems involve applications that are socially relevant, like fire fighting, search and rescue, and planetary exploration. As a result, students stop asking the question, “Why am I learning this?” Problem-based learning incorporating robots is powerful because students remain focused on problem solving for longer periods of time than they do with drill and practice activities. Well designed robotics and problem-based learning creates deeper student engagement that can lead to better skills and concept understanding. STEM is short for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. STEM education is becoming increasingly more important in living and careers of the future. Robotics, by their nature, involves engineering and technology. All we have to do is design robotics projects that incorporate math and science to create a powerful STEM teaching tool. I found one more benefit form robotics that I would like to share. While I was attending the University of Kansas, I came across a dissertation on FIRST robotics and its impact on attitude. The study found that participation in a FIRST robotics competition increased four attitudes towards science. These increased attitudes resulting in, Students developed a more favorable view of to the cost and benefits of science. 2. Students were more likely to believe that scientists are normal people and not eccentrics. 3. Students had an increased respect for inquiry and scientific methods as processes to gain knowledge about the natural world. 4. Students developed an increased value for the behaviors of open-mindedness, evaluating evidence, and willingness to revise opinions based on evidence.
Robot kits have proliferated since 2000. Examples include the Board of Education robot, or BOEBot, by Parallax and Mindstorms by Lego. These are robots primarily focused on programming to problem solve. The electrical and mechanical engineering aspects are not as important. While I like these robots, I like robots better when they bring back the old-school electrical and mechanical engineering requirements. While working on my doctorate, I heard a complaint that robots like Mindstorms were too expensive. Therefore, I began designing a line of robotics kits that brought done the cost by adding back some of the elements of electrical and mechanical engineering.
Before I begin my demonstration, I want to list the robotic resources I have found in the Treasure Valley.
My robots are called CheapBots. When you get one, you get a kit of parts that one must assemble. In the process, you learn some electronics and soldering, using tools to assemble and modify a robot body, and then problem-solving using BASIC.
At the heart of a CheapBot robot controller is a programmable microcontroller. Like other electronic devices which only do one thing, microcontrollers only do one thing, that’s to execute the directions stored inside their memory. What gives microcontrollers their power is that you can go into their memory and change their directions and therefore how they function. Microcontrollers are very plastic devices, a lot like people. You can think of microcontrollers as stripped down PCs. As soon as they are powered up, they execute the single program stored in memory. You don’t install lots of programs into a microcontroller’s memory and they are programmed over a PC. The PC runs a program called an Editor that looks a lot like a word processor. You create documents, or programs in this case, and store them on the PC using the Editor. The Editor scans your program and verifies that it is syntactically correct, just like a spell checker. When you are happy with the program, you can either download it into the microcontroller over a cable or save the program on your PC for later editing. The microcontrollers used in many robots use flash memory so that you can reprogram them thousands of times.
There are four important parts inside a microcontroller. First is the interpreter. This is the permanently programmed part of the microcontroller and it does two things. First, when you turn on a microcontroller, the interpreter checks to see if the Editor is trying to program it. If so, it let’s the Editor program know it is ready and then it stores the program that the Editor is sending it into memory. Otherwise, if the Editor is not trying to communicate with it, the interpreter fetches one instruction at a time from memory and then carries it out. There are three types of memory inside the microcontroller. First there’s flash memory where the program is stored. Second there’s RAM where temporary data from calculations are stored. And finally there’s data memory where the interpreter can store important numbers and characters for long term storage. Data cannot move from one type of memory into the other without the interpreter first making a copy of the data and then pasting it into the other type of memory.
The function of the microcontroller in a robot controller is to use one or more inputs to decide how it will change one or more of its outputs. The microcontroller in the CheapBot has a general purpose input/output and one fixed purpose output. The general input/output is where sensors and other output devices are connected to the microcontroller. These input/output devices include things like bumper switches and light detectors for input and servos and radios for outputs. The fixed purpose outputs are H-Bridges. These are electrically operated switches that accept the low power signal from the microcontroller and change it to current high enough to run motors. The microcontroller and H-Bridges have their own batteries since the motors can be such power hogs.
Let’s see a robot in action. I’ll show you how I program my robots to drive and turn. Then I’ll show feedback and how the robot uses it to navigate.
RoboticsConceptual Evolution andToday’s Teaching Toy
Ancient GreeksHephaestus and his Golden Maidens
The Arab, Renaissance, and Baroque World Clocks and clock-like Mechanisms• Little record remains• Some were fakes