How to Speak Robot: For Humans

Emina Awan
8 min readNov 14, 2020
Terminator Salvation

It’s 2069. One year after the Robotic Revolution. Robots now have full control over the entire planet. The human species is nearly eradicated, being hunted down for sport because of their rarity. Higher ranking robots wear their skin as a token of pride and strength. How did this all happen? I don’t really know. I still live in 2020.

So you are probably thinking, woah, that took a bit of a dark turn there. Why am I talking about the fall of humanity and the human race being obliterated by robots? Heavily influenced by “The Terminator”, robot army from “I, Robot” or “The Matrix”, there is hardly a production out there that showcases positive future with robotics and AI. Most people would think that idea of robots comes to mind for most people when they hear the word “robot(s)”. Although, some people focus on more realistic scenarios however, such as autonomous drones, a Roomba, or self-driving cars.

Companies such as Boston Robotics are attempting to create humanoid robots to explore how robots can automate tasks that normally require humans or would risk a human’s life. Other examples of robots are ones used in car factories, which are used to automate the process of painting, welding, and piecing together cars.

With tendency to overcomplicate that which we don’t understand, most people misunderstand the building blocks of robotics. It’s really not all that complex. So, that’s what I’m here to talk about. The basics of robotics. Start the timer in 3… 2… 1… Go.

First of all, what is a robot?

A robot is a pretty common term that everyone uses nowadays, but if you were to ask one roboticist what a robot is versus another roboticist, you are probably going to get different answers. The easiest answer that I can give you is that a robot is a machine programmed to accomplish a task. Because that’s what we‘ve been doing since industrial revolution, building machines to accomplish various tasks.

So we know what a robot is. But what makes up a robot? Like a human, a robot needs a brain to execute commands, a body to move around and manipulate objects, eyes to see what they are doing, and a power source to full its functions. People who work with robots don’t really call these parts the brain, body, or eyes. They call them the control system, effectors, and sensors. So, let’s break it down.

A robot’s control system is used to determine its behaviour.

roboRIOs are used to house all the robot’s programming

A robot is programmed in a way that it can respond to its environment in different ways, but depending on how it is programmed, it will act in a certain way. Why is that? Couldn’t a robot just learn how to do things by itself? Yes, but also no.

There are two kinds of robots, pre-programmed robots, and autonomous robots. Pre-programmed robots are very simple robots that just repeat the same task over and over again. It’s programmed to respond to “if else” programming statements. For example, is there a ball in front of the robot? If yes, then pick it up. Else keep going straight until it finds a ball. An autonomous robot however, is a very complex kind of robot. These kinds of robots are able to respond in multiple scenarios that they were not really programmed. It uses its sensors to detect the environment and acts accordingly evolving solutions to the problem through trial and error. Whenever a strategy works out, the robot saves that into its control system for ongoing reference.

Depending on what kind of robot you want to build, you use a specific kind of software. Software is the actual coded instruction for the robot. These instructions are coded in what we call languages. It’s basically how we communicate our commands to robots, since they can’t really speak fluent English. There are many different kinds of languages, but the ones mostly used for robotic code is C++ and Python.

Awesome. You now know how robots can think! But how does it see the information that has to be gathered?

That’s where sensors come into play. There are many different kinds of sensors that can be used to guide a robot. The simpler kinds are cameras, microphones, and buttons. Cameras allow the robot to see the environment and judge its different attributes like the shape, size, and distance of objects. Microphones, for example, can detect if there is a person nearby so that the robot doesn’t crash. Buttons can be used on bumpers to determine if the robot has hit a wall.

The complex sensors give the robot more interesting abilities. Light Detection And Ranging (LIDAR) sensors use lasers to construct 3D maps of the environment. A similar sensor called a supersonic sensor is a cheaper way to achieve a similar goal, but uses high frequency sound instead of lasers. Proximity sensors allow robots to determine the distance between objects at any distance without physical contact. Some examples of these are:

  • Infrared (IR) Transceivers: An infrared LED shoots an IR laser and if it finds an object, the light is reflected back. The laser is captured by an IR receiver and the distance is calculated based on speed of reflection.
  • Ultrasonic Sensors: Ultrasonic sensors send out high frequency sound waves to bounce off of objects. The echo that is received would suggest that there is an object nearby.
  • Photoresistors: Photoresistors are a type of light sensor, but can be used as a proximity sensor because as an object moves closer to the sensor, the amount of light changes, which can be detected and processed to determine the distance between the robot and sensor.
Various sensors can be used on a robot

How exactly does a robot do the work, you might be asking? Let’s get into that.

Mars rover Perseverance collecting samples on Mars

Effectors are parts of a robot that can manipulate the environment. It could be anything you desire, a hand, a drill, or maybe a nerf gun if you want to annoy your siblings. It all depends on what task a robot needs to accomplish. A Mars rover for example, has hammers, shovels, and a mass spectrometer to analyze the dirt and rocks of Mars. Another example can be a medical robot, which uses specialized effectors for cutting in surgery and suturing incisions.

But wait. How does the robot move these tools?

That’s where motors come into play. These bad boys are used for many of the moving parts of a robot, from the joints on its limbs, to the tools themselves. If your robot needs some extra muscle power, slap on some pneumatics or hydraulics to get your robot to bench press that 120 pound weight. If you want the robot to be able to move around, motors are the way to go. Depending on how you want the robot to travel, you must use different components with the motor to create movement. If you want to roll, you connect wheels with motors. If you want a walking robot, you create limbs that are connected to motors specifically made for motors.

In order for all the parts to move, we must have a power source.

Robot Battery 12 Volts 33AH (Amp Hours)

Robots use electricity to power the control centre, sensors, and motors. As the robot’s size and need for power increases, the larger the power source must be. Robot batteries can vary from AAA batteries, to car and motorcycle batteries. The type of battery to be used depends on the safety, life cycle, and weight. Lead acid batteries are common, as are silver cadmium batteries.

So we have the puzzle pieces. But how do we put them together?

A robot has what’s called a chassis, which houses all the parts and can be designed in anyway the creator desires. The sensors, effectors, and motors are attached together mechanically to the chassis, using nuts, bots, and welding material so that they are all stable when the robots are moved. Everything that is electronically powered is hooked up into the battery via a type of wire that is acceptable to handle a certain amount of volts, depending how much power is needed for each part. The control centre is connected to the sensors, effectors, and motors via specific wires that can communicate data to and from each part.

Basic parts of an Arduino Robot

And there you have it! You have just learned about the basics of a robot!

They’re not as bad as what the movies have predicted after all? Obviously, we are nowhere near fully autonomous human replacement, since we are still struggling with building robots performing multiple tasks that come very easily to humans. Some robots are good at walking, others only at picking things up or navigating. So many of the robots we have now are pretty basic compared to those imagined in movies and many have been in our households a lot longer than we think. Dishwasher, laundry machines have been around a lot longer than Roomba. Engineers are working very hard to create efficient robots with smaller parts, and soon we might be seeing more multifunctional robots in our day to day lives! Manufacturing, automobile, or mining industries use robotics to increase production rates and decrease the risk of humans getting hurt, while Amazon is dominating in robotics for distribution centres. Who knows, maybe we will finally get a robot that can do a variety of chores! I for one would gladly invest in that, so I don’t have to do the chores anymore. The possibilities are endless when it comes to robotics. Maybe you might just create the next big thing?

TL;DR 📝:

  • Robots are commonly misunderstood and people have a tendency to overcomplicate the building blocks of robots
  • The basic components of robots are the control system, sensors, effectors, motors, a power source, and a chassis
  • Depending on what kind of robot you want to create, the components of the robot will vary.

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