Robots, becoming increasingly prevalent in factories and industrial plants throughout the developed world, are programmed and engineered to perform industrial tasks without human intervention.
Most of today's robots are employed in the automotive industry, where they are programmed to take over such jobs as welding and spray painting automobile and truck bodies. They also load and unload hot, heavy metal forms used in machines casting automobile and truck frames.
Robots, already taking over human tasks in the automotive field, are beginning to be seen, although to a lesser degree, in other industries as well.
There they build electric motors, small appliances, pocket calculators, and even watches. The robots used in nuclear power plants handle the radioactive materials, preventing human personnel from being exposed to radiation. These are the robots responsible for the reduction in job-related injuries in this new industry.
What makes a robot a robot and not just another kind of automatic machine? Robots differ from automatic machines in that after completion of one specific task, they can be reprogrammed by a computer to do another one. As an example, a robot doing spot welding one month can be reprogrammed and switched to spray painting the next.
Automatic machine, on the other hand, are not capable of many different uses; they are built to perform only one task.
The next generation of robots will be able to see objects, will have a sense of touch, and will make critical decisions. Engineers skilled in microelectronics and computer technology are developing artificial vision for robots. With the ability to "see", robots can identify and inspect one specific class of objects out of a stack of different kinds of materials. One robot vision system used electronic digital cameras containing many rows of light-sensitive materials.
When light from an object such as a machine part strikes the camera, the sensitive materials measure the intensity of light and convert the light rays into a range of numbers. The numbers are part of a grayscale system in which brightness is measured in a range of values.
One scale ranges from 0 to 15, and another from 0 to 255. The 0 is represented by black. The highest number is white. The numbers is between represent different shades of gray. The computer then makes the calculations and converts the numbers into a picture that shows an image of the object in question. It is not yet known whether robots will one day have vision as good as human vision. Technicians believe they will, but only after years of development.
Engineers working on other advances are designing and experimenting with new types of metal hands and fingers, giving robots a sense of touch. Other engineers are writing new programs allowing robots to make decisions such as whether to discard defective parts in finished products. To do this, the robot will also have to be capable of identifying those defective parts.
These future robots, assembled with a sense of touch and the ability to see and make decisions, will have plenty of work to do.
They can be used to explore for minerals on the ocean floor or in deep areas of mines too dangerous for humans to enter. They will work as gas station attendants, firemen, housekeepers, and security personnel.
Anyone wanting to understand the industry of the future will have to know about robotics.