What is robotics?

November 28, 2023
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What is a robot?

By definition:

  • A robot is a programmable machine that can perform tasks.
  • Robotics is the study and development of robot automation and robotic systems.

The word robot comes from the Czech word "robota" which means "forced labor." The word first appeared in the 1920s R.U.R. play and referenced the play's characters who were mass-produced, creative-thinking beings.

Robots have come a long way in a relatively short space of time. Innovative industries have discovered that the use of robotics gives tangible results that increase productivity and safety in the workplace.

In 1954, George Devol invented the Unimate Robot - the first programmable robot of its time. A couple of years later, in 1961, the Unimate Robot was introduced to the General Motors assembly line in New Jersey, USA, and laid the foundation of the modern robotics industry as we know it today.

Some robots, like Collaborative bots (Cobots), are designed to work alongside humans. They harness machine learning and complex computer programming to easily assist human employees. Other types of robots, like Autonomous robots, work independently with minimal human intervention.

What is robotics?

As we mentioned, robotics is the study and development of robots and their robotic systems. Robotics is an interdisciplinary branch of engineering and science that combines various engineering disciplines, such as:

  • Mechanical
  • Electrical
  • Information
  • Computer science

The robotics industry deals with:

  1. Design and construction - bridging the gap between various engineering aspects to create machines that can replicate or surpass human actions.
  2. Operation - implementing and utilizing advanced AI, machine learning, and computer science to program these devices to perform the relevant tasks.
  3. Control systems - engineers use the latest cutting-edge technology in robot computing systems such as software (e.g. computer programs) and hardware aspects (e.g. robot arms). Chatbots used in customer service are an example of software robotic programming.
  4. Sensory feedback - engineers incorporate machine learning and AI into robotic systems, allowing robots to perceive their surroundings and make decisions based on sensory data.

Now that you understand the difference between robots and robotics, let's take a look at the technical and electrical components of robots.

Technical components of robots

Robots are complex machines comprising several key components, each serving a crucial function. This section delves into these robotic components and how they work together to bring a robot to life.

Control systems

The control system is like the robot's brain. It's a sophisticated network of software, like computer programs, using algorithms and programming to dictate the behavior of the robot. Hardware elements, like camera vision process data, direct the robot's actions. The hardware typically includes a central processing unit (CPU), memory, and input/output interfaces.

The control system receives and processes input from sensors, transmitting commands to the robot's actuators to perform tasks. The processed data can range in complexity, from simple predefined responses to more advanced AI-driven decision-making.


Sensors are components that give robots the ability to perceive, sense, and "feel" their surroundings. They are the primary source of external information for the robot, kind of like human hands. The CPU uses this data to make informed decisions and map out its surroundings.

There are various types of sensors that robots are installed with, such as:

  • Touch sensors - to detect physical contact and pressure.
  • Vision sensors - provide visual data, object recognition, and navigation.
  • Auditory sensors - to respond to sound cues, like voice commands.
  • Environmental sensors - to measure external conditions like temperature or humidity.


Actuators are the "muscles" of the robot. They are devices that convert various forms of energy into physical motion, like walking or picking up objects. The energy conversion can be electrical energy to mechanical energy or hydraulic pressure to movement.

There are various types of actuators that robots are installed with; these include:

  • Electric - the most common in modern robotics. Electric motors create motion and are ideal for tasks such as fine control in robot arms and precision tasks.
  • Hydraulic - uses fluid pressure to generate movement. These are often used in larger robots that require powerful movements, such as construction or heavy manufacturing robots.
  • Pneumatic - operates on compressed air and is used for tasks that require quick, repetitive movements, like automotive assembly lines.

Power supply

The power supply is the component that provides the energy for robots to operate. It is a critical part of the robot design as it affects its size, endurance, power, and the speed at which it performs relevant tasks.

There are various types of power supplies that robots are installed with, including:

  • Battery-operated - designed for mobile or portable units. Lithium-ion batteries are the most popular due to their high energy density and rechargeability.
  • Solar system - often used for robots operating outdoors, such as Agricultural robots or drones. Solar panels are used to power these types of robots.
  • Electrical units - often used for stationary robots, such as an Industrial robot drawing power directly from an electrical outlet. These robots have limited moveability.


End-effectors are the "hands" of robots: the tools at the end of a robotic arm. They are the points of intersection between the robot and its environment and are designed for specific tasks. The types of end-effectors available include:

  • Grippers - used for picking up, holding, and moving objects.
  • Welding torches - used in manufacturing, especially in the automotive industry, where welding metal parts together requires precision and consistency.
  • Drilling and fastening tools - used in assembly operations, like bolting, screwing, and drilling.
  • Painting tools - automate labor-intensive painting and coating operations. They ensure a uniform finish and reduce human employees' exposure to harmful substances.
  • Cameras and sensors - used for inspection, quality control, and surveillance tasks.

Integration of components

The true power of robots and their robotics lies in the seamless integration of their components. The control system acts as the brain and interprets data from several different sources. It uses this information to make informed decisions and sends instructions to the actuator "muscles" to create the desired movement. In turn, this tells the end-effectors what task is required.

This harmonious connection of various working parts constitutes robots performing tasks, from delicate surgical procedures to space exploration - and beyond.

With a deeper understanding of how these mechanical devices work, let's look at a few different types of robots we see today.

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Types of robots

When robots were first introduced, they were bulky and less streamlined. Now, they are sleek, sophisticated machines that are no longer "nice to haves" but "must haves," especially in the industrial industry to stay ahead of the curve.

There are many types of robots, from simple machines with a single robotic arm, to military robots, Autonomous robots, and Humanoid robots. These intelligent robots perform repetitive tasks and assist humans with varying degrees of automation within diverse professions. These robotic systems streamline processes and improve safety in the workplace.

Autonomous robots

There are two types of Autonomous robots: Autonomous Mobile Robots (AMRs) and automated guided vehicles (AGVs).

Autonomous mobile robot description and function

AMRs, otherwise known as autonomous vehicles or independent bots, operate independently. They are capable of navigating and operating in an uncontrolled environment without the need for physical guidance from humans or predetermined tracks. They are equipped with computer vision and artificial intelligence (AI) and use machine learning to navigate their surroundings.

Often used in factories and warehousing, these autonomous vehicles assist with:

  • Material handling
  • Inventory management
  • Order fulfillment

Autonomous forklifts and space rovers are examples of AMRs.

Automated guided vehicle robot description and function

AGVs follow preset tracks within a designated workplace. This type of programmable robot is guided by sensors or markers along the ground. They are commonly used in large warehouses or manufacturing plants to transport goods from one area to another.

A palletizing robot is one example of an AGV.

Articulated robots


Articulated robots are multi-jointed robots. The robotic arm or arms are meant to work in the same way as a human arm. They can have as few as two joints, or up to 10 rotary joints that allow for various degrees of motion. They are very versatile, can work in confined spaces, and complete complex tasks like assembly and sorting with ease.


These robots are used in industrial settings for:

  • Assembly
  • Welding
  • Painting
  • Material handling, such as packing and sorting

Humanoid robots


Humanoid robots are bipedal robots (two-legged robots) that are designed to look and act like human beings. These robotic systems are equipped with artificial intelligence to engage with their surroundings in a human-like manner, with facial features that express emotions and human behavior.


  • In 2017, Hong Kong-based company Hanson's Robotics created Sophia - the most famous humanoid robot. Designed to study human behavior and equipped with advanced AI and visual data processing, this visual data science allowed Sophia to form genuine human relationships. Sophia is the first humanoid robot to be granted Saudi Arabian citizenship.
  • During the Covid-19 pandemic, Hanson's Robotics designed the Grace robot to assist humans in the medical industry. Grace was able to take patients' temperatures, read pulse rates, and communicate sympathetically with patients in a human-like manner.
  • A humanoid robot can also be used for entertainment purposes to create an emotional connection like laughing. An example of this is Disney's Na'vi Shaman robot which welcomes guests as they enter The World Of Avatar at the Animal Kingdom theme park.

Collaborative robots


A Collaborative robot - Cobot for short - is a robotic system specifically designed to work alongside humans in a shared space. They are not intended to replace human employees.

Cobots are more user-friendly when compared to larger robotic systems (such as assembly line automation) and are easily programmable. This type of mechanical device has sensors and safety features to detect human presence, creating a safe working environment.


Cobots are used in:

  • Small-manufacturing settings, such as workshops
  • Research labs
  • Aerospace
  • Healthcare industry

Universal Robot's UR20, which launched in 2022, is one example of an industrial cobot.

Other types of robots

Apart from the robots mentioned above, the other types of robots available include:

  • Selective Compliance Assembly Robot Arm (SCARA) robots consist of two parallel arms connected at a right angle. They are often used for manufacturing and assembly tasks.
  • Cartesian robots - or Gantry robots - operate in a similar way to 3D grids. They are used in pick-and-place tasks, CNC machinery, and 3D printing.
  • Service robots, like Aethon's Transporter, Unloading, and Grouping (TUG) robot, are designed to assist humans with basic, repetitive tasks such as moving items from one department to another.
  • Medical robots, like the da Vinci Surgical System, are used to assist surgeons with minimally invasive procedures.
  • Rehabilitation robots (Exoskeleton robots), such as the HARO Robot Suit, are wearable devices used to assist patients with physical therapy.
  • Domestic robots, like iRobot's Roomba self-vacuuming bots, assist individuals with routine cleaning tasks.
  • Educational robots assist students on their learning journey, as seen with the Dash And Dot and Makeblock mBot models.
  • Military robots, like AlphaDog, assist US troops when searching for explosives in dangerous, hazardous conditions.
  • Search and rescue robots perform dangerous tasks. They are used in search and rescue missions when scouring for survivors in unsafe environments. Elios and Kobra bots are examples of this type of robot.
  • Construction robots, like the SAM100 model, are used to increase productivity and improve safety on work sites.

Next, we'll take a closer look at the different industries where robots are used.

Uses of robotics

The field of robotics has had a transformative impact across various sectors.


Robots have revolutionized the manufacturing industry by enhancing efficiency, safety, and innovation. They perform repetitive tasks like welding, painting, quality control, and assembly with ease. By utilizing robotics, these Industrial robots boost productivity, speed, and consistency.


In agriculture, robots are used for planting, harvesting, and monitoring crops and help analyze growing conditions. The use of automated drones to spray pesticides greatly reduces labor costs and increases crop yields.


In the energy sector, robots perform tasks like inspecting and maintaining infrastructure, especially in hazardous conditions. These types of robots are used to inspect offshore oil rigs which drastically reduces health and safety risks.


Robotics in the healthcare industry range from Surgical robots to Telemedicine robots and automated laboratory systems. This type of robotic assistance enhances procedures, precision, and patient recovery times. They also reduce surgeon fatigue and the physical strain on medical personnel.

Shipping and delivery

Logistic robots assist humans with warehouse operations such as transporting (loading and unloading) goods from one area to another. The use of automated warehousing systems and delivery drones reduces the risk of human error and boosts productivity.


What do robotic engineers do?

Robotic engineers develop and create robotic systems used to perform human and non-human tasks. A type of computer program is installed into robot systems, allowing them to perform various tasks, such as pick-and-place, welding, or logistic tasks, within several different industries.

Final thoughts

As you can see, the realm of robotics has impacted many industries across the globe and continues to do so. From their humble beginnings in the 60s, when General Motors first introduced the Unimate Robot into assembly lines, to Standard Bots' sophisticated RO1 Collaborative robot seen today, there has been a remarkable evolution in robotics history.

The global robotics market revealed over 500,000 new industrial robotic installations in 2022, increasing by 5% from the year prior. These statistics show how vital robots are to the industrial industry. With projections to reach $45.09 billion by 2028, we can only imagine what other types of robots lie on the horizon.

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