What are teleoperated robots? Definition with examples

April 30, 2024
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What are teleoperated robots?

Teleoperated robots, or telerobots, are robotic systems that are controlled and operated remotely by a human operator. 

The human operator monitors the robot's progress and sends commands to the robot from a separate control station. 

Note: Teleoperated robots are not autonomous or self-driving, but instead rely on direct input from a human to function and complete tasks.

How telerobots work: Understanding teleoperation

Teleoperated robots have components that allow the operator to control them remotely. 

Let’s take a closer look: 

  • Teleoperated robots feature cameras for visual feedback. Operators rely on this live video stream to understand the robot's surroundings.
  • Sensors give the robot awareness. These can detect obstacles, temperature, pressure, and other environmental conditions, providing additional information to the operator.
  • Communication systems link the robot and operator. This allows the operator to transmit commands, and the robot to send back video and sensor data in real-time.
  • Operators use a master control panel. This device translates their hand movements and button presses into commands the robot understands.
  • The robot mimics the operator's actions. It receives commands from the control panel and moves accordingly, providing a sense of remote presence for the operator.

Real-world examples of teleoperated robots in use

Teleoperated robots are already being used widely, and you probably already know of a few famous cases. 

Space exploration 

Some of the most well-known examples of teleoperated robots are the Mars rovers Spirit, Opportunity, and Curiosity. These robots are controlled by NASA scientists on Earth, but they can operate autonomously to a degree. The rovers have explored the surface of Mars and sent back invaluable data and images.

Deep sea exploration

It’s difficult and dangerous for humans to explore the deep ocean, so teleoperated submersibles are used instead. 

For example, the Jason submersible was used to explore the wreck of the Titanic in the 1990s. It’s equipped with cameras and manipulator arms that are controlled by human pilots on a ship at the surface. 

These subs have also been used to study deep sea vents and marine life.


Teleoperated surgical robots like the da Vinci system are transforming the way surgeries are performed. The surgeon sits at a console and controls the robot’s arms to perform minimally invasive procedures. The robot provides a high-definition 3D view of the surgical site and more dexterity and control than human hands alone. 

Robotic surgery allows for smaller incisions, less pain, less blood loss, and faster recovery times for the patient. Over 600,000 surgeries worldwide have been performed using the da Vinci system.

Nuclear and hazardous waste management 

Teleoperated robots are ideal for tasks that are dangerous for humans, like handling nuclear waste, hazardous chemicals, or unexploded ordnance. 

Robots can go into contaminated areas, survey the environment, and handle or move materials without putting people at risk. 

Some nuclear facilities use teleoperated cranes and vehicles to dismantle old equipment and facilities. 

Police and military also use robots to dispose of bombs and other explosives safely.

Benefits of telerobots

Teleoperated robots offer many advantages over fully autonomous systems or direct human operation: 

  • Operating telerobots from a distance slashes some of the costs associated with dangerous work environments. Workers can control robots from a safe location, eliminating the need for expensive protective equipment and cutting down on health risks. This also allows companies to avoid costly shutdowns due to accidents or grievous injuries.
  • Teleoperated robots help increase overall human productivity. Operators have an optimized workstation and interface designed specifically for controlling robots. They can use simulations and virtual reality to train and prepare for complex tasks. 
  • Performing difficult or dangerous jobs with telerobots protects squishy human workers from harm. Robots can handle toxic materials, work in confined spaces, lift heavy objects, or operate in extreme environments that would be unsafe for people. Telerobots also minimize the risk of workers being injured by heavy equipment, or by working in these unsafe areas. 

Teleoperated robots provide access to locations that are difficult (or impossible) for humans to reach. They can explore deep ocean environments, work in outer space, or navigate disaster areas that have unstable infrastructure. Robots controlled remotely give us the ability to conduct important research and operations in these places.

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Challenges of telerobots

While it may look like all gain, no pain, working with telerobots does come with some unique challenges. 

Let’s take a look: 

  • Telerobots typically provide limited sensory feedback to the operator. In essence, you’re unable to feel the environment around the robot, so delicate movements and interactions with the physical world can be challenging. Some telerobots use virtual reality systems to provide visual depth perception and simulated touch feedback, but we still have a way to go to match natural human senses.
  • They tend to be quite expensive to develop and deploy. They need robust and reliable communication systems to function, as well as high-performance robots, control interfaces, and navigation systems. All of these specialized components don’t come cheap. Telerobots also introduce many additional points of potential failure in a system, from software issues to hardware malfunctions to network connectivity problems.

    For critical applications like bomb disposal, even a temporary loss of control could have disastrous consequences.
  • Finally, the use of telerobots brings up some questions about safety, privacy, and ethics. For example, there are concerns about telerobots causing harm if misused or hacked. Plus, they also enable remote surveillance and data collection that could violate privacy. So, as with any advanced technology, these bots highlight the need to consider the societal implications of our engineering accomplishments and not just their technical feats.

Summing up

Now you're all caught up on what teleoperated robots are, how they work, where they're being used, and what the future looks like. 

Seems like these telerobots are going to keep improving and finding their way into more parts of our lives.

But are they really the future, or are completely autonomous robots going to win the war for efficiency in the end? It seems only time will tell! 

Next steps

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