Introduction to Robotics

By: Koné Mamadou Tadiou, PhD

A. 1.  What is Robotics?

Robotics is the study of robots which are automated machines designed to carry out dangerous or strenuous work for humans.  In the beginning, Robotics was a subfield of artificial Intelligence [1] [2] which then split to form a branch of engineering concerned with the construction, operation and usage of skilful robots. Research and development in Robotics can easily be classified in several categories. These are industrial, personal and service robots, humanoid, networked robots, Robotics for biological and medical applications, and space Robotics. Example Robotics success stories are the Mars Exploration Rover from NASA, the underwater robot Caribou from Wayne State University, the entertainment and home robots  Aibo and Asimo from Sony and Honda.

Most robots have three main parts: a controller (its brain), mechanical components involved in an autonomous motion, and sensors which receive input from its surrounding and help in adapting.


 Fig. 1: Example success stories in Robotics (historical):
Sony’s AIBO in May 1999,  Honda’s ASIMO and NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover.

2.  A short history of Robotics

The word “Robot” was first introduced  around 1920 by Czech playwright and novelist Karel Čapek in his play “Rossum’s Universal Robots”.  It originated from the old Church Slavonic (Bulgarian) word “robota” which means “servitude” or “forced labor”. Then in 1942, Isaac Asimov, coined the word Robotics in his “Three Laws of Robotics” of a science fiction novel.  Over several years, many advances by scientists and industry leaders helped the field of Robotics achieve great success and popularity [1] [2].

  • In 1898, Nikola Tesla demonstrated his first radio-controlled vessel.
  • In 1939 and 1940, the World’s Fairs showcased the first Humanoid robot.
  • In 1956, Unimation presented the first commercial robot.
  • In 1961, the frst industrial robot was operating.
  • In 1972, the first computer-controlled robot, the IRB6 was sold in Sweden.
  • In 1975, Unimation produced the universal manipulation arm.

B.      Methods and trends in Robotics

Modern Robotics research relies heavily on computer science and AI techniques. Therefore, many of the known issues in these technologies have transferred to interface programming of robots.  The following three styles of user interface have emerged in Robotics research [4] over the years.

Learning by example:

In the beginning, robots learned about their duties by following a predefined sequence of tasks taught by a supervisor. The robot would record precisely each step of the task in an internal memory and them “play back” the same task on its own. This approach was particularly suitable for manufacturing jobs like welding and painting.

Robot interface programming:

The proliferation of computers and high level computer programming languages has open new doors in dealing with robots, their components, interface and control. Nowadays, there are several robot programming languages (RPL) which help design interfaces to manipulators (mechanical parts), effectors (end of parts) and deal with control problems. A robot programming language acts as an interface between a human and an industrial robot. These languages are generally divided in three groups: [7]

  • Dedicated programming languages,
  • Robotics-friendly libraries from existing programming (ex. C library),
  • Robotics-specific libraries for an existing language,
  • Brand new language with Robotics-specific libraries.

There are three interesting examples of these Robotics-specific programming languages. The first is VAL (Variable Assembly Language), a manipulator control language which was developed by Unimation to control the industrial robots. The second language called AL, is based on force control and parallelism. It was developed in an Artificial Intelligence laboratory at Stanford University. The third one is RAIL, a high-level language based on Pascal. It is one of the best languages for controlling manipu- lation and vision systems.

Task-level programming languages:

With such language, a user can specify directly in a high-level language, all intermediate sub goals of the main task.  This particular disposition helps the planning of multiple tasks without going into intricate details of how to perform them. For example,  when a robot is asked  to “move a tire”, the system have to plan a path for the manipulator to achieve this goal (find a point of contact, grasp the tire,  and move it) and simultaneously avoid collision with other objects along its path or surroundings. Task-level programming of manipulators is still an active area of research.


Fig. 2: Robots in action in a vehicle manufacturing plant (photo by

C.      Research and challenges in Robotics

Like all high-calibre research initiatives, Robotics [4]  [5] has its own set of fundamental challenges and unsolved problems. Some of these general challenges identified on the international scene (see fig. 3) [8] and in America [10], may be categorized as follows:

Physical interaction with the real world:  Good  hardware  to  make  robots’ arms  and  hands capable of a multitude of other actions besides picking and placing.

Perception  outside  structured  2D settings:  Current robots’ ability to perceive and act on 3D objects is limited and primitive.

Safety for humans:  It is necessary to make personal robots safe for humans to be around with. These safety concerns about human-robot interaction bring with them a number of technical challenges drawn from studies in human-computer interaction.

Grid of robots, sensors, and users: In current real-world applications, a robot carry out predefined tasks together with a human or a network of sensors in a structured setting. With the proliferation of networks and embedded structures in our environment, robots will have to learn how to deal with other participants to achieve a goal inside a network.

The following facts are from the IEEE/RSJ International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems, October 7-12, 2012



We can also point out challenges related to particular aspects of Robotics R&D:

Knowledge representation: Humanoid robots can help us understand how robots should represent knowledge about entities in their surroundings.

Vision and tactile coordination:  The possibility of combining vision and tactile perceptions to have a better handle on objects is attractive in industrial environment.

Acceptance of humanoid: How should industry make humans accept humanoid robots as team mates without any particular negative impact on production?

Mobility in space robotics:  This area of research is still haunted with the basic questions of robot location, robot goal, obstacles to overcome, and motion from an initial point to a desired point.

Time delay in space robotics:  This is a serious challenge that affects not only space Robotics but also robots involved in critical environment like the nuclear industry.

D.      References

[1] Nocks, Lisa (2007). The robot: the life story of a technology. Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Group.

[2] International Federation of Robotics ( 2012 ). History of Industrial Robots.
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[3] Robotics Industry News (2013). Applications and Trends.

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[4] The Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University.
URL =  .

[5] Trossen Robotics Community (2013). How to build a Robot:
URL = .

[6] Society of Robotics Surgery. URL = .

[7] Robotics Business Review.

[8] World Technology Evaluation Center (2006). International Assessment of Research and Development in Robotics.

[10] GaTech, CMU, Robotics Tech. Consortium (March 2013). A Roadmap for U.S. Robotics, From Internet to Robotics.