24 September 2012
The people behind the invention:
Karel Capek (1890-1938), a Czech playwright
George C. Devol, Jr. (1912- ), an American inventor
Joseph F. Engelberger (1925- ), an American entrepreneur
Robots, from Concept to Reality
The 1920 play Rossum’s Universal Robots, by Czech writer Karel
Capek, introduced robots to the world. Capek’s humanoid robots—
robot, a word created by Capek, essentially means slave—revolted
and took over the world, which made the concept of robots somewhat
frightening. The development of robots, which are now defined
as machines that do work that would ordinarily be carried out
by humans, has not yet advanced to the stage of being able to produce
humanoid robots, however, much less robots capable of carrying
out a revolt.
Most modern robots are found in industry, where they perform
dangerous or monotonous tasks that previously were done by humans.
The first industrial robots were the Unimates (short for “universal
automaton”), which were derived from a robot design invented
by George C. Devol and patented in 1954. The first Unimate
prototypes, developed by Devol and Joseph F. Engelberger, were
completed in 1962 by Unimation Incorporated and tested in industry.
They were so successful that the company, located in Danbury,
Connecticut, manufactured and sold thousands of Unimates to
companies in the United States and abroad. Unimates are very versatile
at performing routine industrial tasks and are easy to program
and reprogram. The tasks they perform include various steps in automobile
manufacturing, spray painting, and running lathes. The
huge success of the Unimates led companies in other countries to
produce their own industrial robots, and advancing technology has
improved all industrial robots tremendously.
A New Industrial Revolution
Each of the first Unimate robots, which were priced at $25,000,
was almost five feet tall and stood on a four-foot by five-foot base. It
has often been said that a Unimate resembles the gun turret of a
minitank, set atop a rectangular box. In operation, such a robot will
swivel, swing, and/or dip and turn at the wrist of its hydraulically
powered arm, which has a steel hand. The precisely articulated
hand can pick up an egg without breaking it. At the same time, however,
it is powerful enough to lift a hundred-pound weight.
The Unimate is a robotic jack of all trades: It can be programmed,
in about an hour, to carry out a complex operation, after which it can
have its memory erased and be reprogrammed in another hour to
do something entirely different. In addition, programming a Unimate
requires no special training. The programmer simply uses a teachcable
selector that allows the programmer to move the Unimate arm
through the desired operation. This selector consists of a group of
pushbutton control boxes, each of which is equipped with buttons
in opposed pairs. Each button pair records the motion that will put a
Unimate arm through one of five possible motions, in opposite directions.
For example, pushing the correct buttons will record a motion
in which the robot’s arm moves out to one side, aims upward,
and angles appropriately to carry out the first portion of its intended
job. If the Unimate overshoots, undershoots, or otherwise
performs the function incorrectly, the activity can be fine-tuned
with the buttons.
Once the desired action has been performed correctly, pressing a
“record” button on the robot’s main control panel enters the operation
into its computer memory. In this fashion, Unimates can be programmed
to carry out complex actions that require as many as two
hundred commands. Each command tells the Unimate to move its
arm or hand in a given way by combining the following five motions:
sliding the arm forward, swinging the arm horizontally, tilting
the arm up or down, bending the wrist up or down, and swiveling
the hand in a half-circle clockwise or counterclockwise.
Before pressing the “record” button on the Unimate’s control
panel, the operator can also command the hand to grasp an item
when in a particular position. Furthermore, the strength of the
grasp can be controlled, as can the duration of time between each action.
Finally, the Unimate can be instructed to start or stop another
routine (such as operating a paint sprayer) at any point. Once the instructor
is satisfied with the robot’s performance, pressing a “repeat
continuous” control starts the Unimate working. The robot will stop
repeating its program only when it is turned off.
Inside the base of an original Unimate is a magnetic drum that
contains its memory. The drum turns intermittently, moving each of
two hundred long strips of metal beneath recording heads. This
strip movement brings specific portions of each strip—dictated by
particular motions—into position below the heads. When the “record”
button is pressed after a motion is completed, the hand position
is recorded as a series of numbers that tells the computer the
complete hand position in each of the five permissible movement
Once “repeat continuous” is pressed, the computer begins the
command series by turning the drum appropriately, carrying out
each memorized command in the chosen sequence. When the sequence
ends, the computer begins again, and the process repeats
until the robot is turned off. If a Unimate user wishes to change the
function of such a robot, its drum can be erased and reprogrammed.
Users can also remove programmed drums, store them for future
use, and replace them with new drums.
The first Unimates had a huge impact on industrial manufacturing.
In time, different sizes of robots became available so that additional
tasks could be performed, and the robots’ circuitry was improved.
Because they have no eyes and cannot make judgments,
Unimates are limited to relatively simple tasks that are coordinated
by means of timed operations and simple computer interactions.
Most of the thousands of modern Unimates and their multinational
cousins in industry are very similar to the original Unimates
in terms of general capabilities, although they can now assemble
watches and perform other delicate tasks that the original Unimates
could not perform. The crude magnetic drums and computer controls
have given way to silicon chips and microcomputers, which
have made the robots more accurate and reliable. Some robots can
even build other robots, and others can perform tasks such as mowing
lawns and walking dogs.
Various improvements have been planned that will ultimately
lead to some very interesting and advanced modifications. It is
likely that highly sophisticated humanoid robots like those predicted
by Karel Capek will be produced at some future time. One
can only hope that these robots will not rebel against their human
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