Defining robots and robotics

Robots have been around since the 1960's. Since then, the 'standard' robot has been transformed and it has developed in immensely divergent ways. Despite all the attention for robots and robotics in the media, capturing robots in a single definition has proven to be an elusive task. Although we may not be able to provide you with a 100% complete answer, we can give you an overview on some of the more popular definitions and descriptions out there.

Definition of robots

"A robot is an actuated mechanism programmable in two or more axes with a degree of autonomy, moving within its environment, to perform intended tasks. Autonomy in this context means the ability to perform intended tasks based on current state and sensing, without human intervention."

This is the most frequently used definition of a robot. You may sense that this definition does leave room for interpretation. 

  • a degree of autonomy - What amount is a degree? 
  • Intended tasks - intended by whom? The programmer, the end user, the robot?
  • moving within its environment - What qualifies as 'environment'? Does a virtual agent moving through its software environment qualify?
  • without human intervention - If a human is needed to 'intervene' does that disqualify an object as a robot?

Many types of robots might not fullfill these criteria. I.e. surgical robotics often lack autonomy, but are generally considered to be a type of robot. Despite these gray areas this definition does provide a foundation to work upon.

Definition of service robots

Robots can be further subdivided into categories. The broadest of these categories are 'industrial robots' and 'service robots'. As a 'Center for Service Robotics' we are most interested in the definition of service robotics.

"A service robot is a robot that performs useful tasks for humans or equipment excluding industrial automation application. Note: The classification of a robot into industrial robot or service robot is done according to its intended application."

Obviously, interpretation issues arrise over the 'usefullness of tasks' and the 'intended application'.  And the basis issue of the dependance on the ambiguous word 'robot' remains, but basically it is now possible to categorize robots in either 'service robots' or 'industrial robots'

Robots vs. robotics

Because of the vagueness of certain terms researchers often don't speak about robots, but about robotics. Robotics is the study of mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, electronic engineering and computer science and is a broader way of looking at developments. An autonomous, self-driving car may or may not be a robot, depending on your interpretation of the definitions, but robotics is definitely involved in its design process.

Some final words of wisdom

In conlusion, defining certain objects as robots is a tricky business that's part science and part art. It relies on our combined perception and on the novelty of objects. A robot is often associated with innovation and as an object matures we may be less inclined to perceive it as a robot. Current examples are the autonomous vacuum cleaners. Therefore, we'll finish with an appropriate quote from the godfather of robotics:

"I can't define a robot, but I know one when I see one."
~ Joseph Engelberger