Robot Technology

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Robot Technology

by James G. Barr

Docid: 00021094

Publication Date: 2203

Report Type: TUTORIAL


While robots have been around for decades – nearly everyone is familiar
with those mechanized behemoths that straddle vehicle assembly lines –
advancements in robot technology or robotics, like the Robot Operating
System (ROS), inexpensive sensors, open source development, and artificial
intelligence, have accelerated robot development and deployment in ways
hardly imagined only a few years ago.

Report Contents:

Executive Summary

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While robots have been around for decades – nearly everyone is familiar
with those mechanized behemoths that straddle vehicle assembly lines –
advancements in robot technology or robotics, like the Robot Operating
System (ROS), inexpensive sensors, open source development, and artificial
intelligence, have accelerated robot development and deployment in ways
hardly imagined only a few years ago.

Faulkner Reports
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Artificial Intelligence Tutorial
Machine Learning Tutorial

As analyst Hans Peter Moravec reports, “the term ‘robot’ derives from the
Czech word ‘robota’ (‘forced labor’ or ‘serf’), used in Karel Capek’s
[1920] play ‘R.U.R.'” Dystopian in tone, “the play’ s robots were
manufactured humans, heartlessly exploited by factory owners until they
revolted and ultimately destroyed humanity.”1

Today, robots have a more positive image. They drive cars, perform
surgery, conduct military operations, vacuum your house, and assume other
responsibilities that were formerly the exclusive province of people. This
robot revolution is both:

  • Natural – technology will not be contained; and
  • Planned – many, if not most, business leaders are eager to replace
    relatively high-cost human labor with low-cost robot labor.

Concerning the latter phenomenon, in a New York Times article,
entitled “The Hidden Automation Agenda of the Davos Elite,” author Kevin
Roose reported that “They’ll never admit it in public, but many of your
bosses want machines to replace you as soon as possible.

“In public, many executives wring their hands over the negative
consequences that artificial intelligence and automation could have for
workers. But in private settings … these executives tell a different
story: They are racing to automate their own work forces to stay ahead of
the competition, with little regard for the impact on workers.

“A 2017 survey by Deloitte found that 53 percent of companies had already
started to use machines to perform tasks previously done by humans.”2

Making the transition a little less onerous, a post-pandemic movement dubbed
"The Great Resignation" has revealed that many workers – particularly those
involved in industries destined for increased automation – are actually
reluctant to return to full-time work.

Thus, with the robot imperative firmly established, it is important for
enterprise planners to understand the present state of robot technology,
where the technology is headed in the near term, and how the technology
can be employed to increase enterprise productivity and profitability.

This discussion starts with a definition. A robot is, according to
analyst Greg Nichols, “a programmable machine that physically interacts
with the world around it, and can carry out a complex series of actions
autonomously or semi-autonomously.”3

Rather than one technology, robotics lie at the intersection of multiple
foundational technologies: mechanics, of course (that is, gears, pulleys,
etc.), but also software, sensors, machine learning algorithms, and
special materials.

Although robot technology has progressed in certain spheres (self-driving
vehicles are a prominent example), a number of obstacles remain, often
surrounding seemingly simple functions that humans perform precisely and
effortlessly, and that robots do not.

Fine Manipulation

As analyst Lior Elazary observes, “[there] is a lot of excitement
surrounding fine manipulation in robotics [grasping small and/or fragile
items], but the fact is that we are not there yet.”4

Analyst Karen Hao concurs, but predicts that “[within] a few years, any
task that previously required hands to perform could be partially or fully
automated away,” citing as evidence the progress made by robotics
companies like Covariant and Osaro. “[Both] startups are already working
with [product fulfillment] customers on … complicated sequences of
motions, including auto-bagging, which requires robots to work with
crinkly, flimsy, or translucent materials.”5

Robot Perception

In addition to fine manipulation, analyst Elazary

as a major problem. “The more a machine can perceive what’s happening
around it, the more it can accomplish. [Robotic] perception will continue
to improve, but again, only incrementally. Vision sensors, for example,
are relatively cheap, but the computation power needed to process the
information comes at a high price. Algorithms will improve over time, but
the gap between human vision and computer vision will remain substantial.”6

As with fine manipulation, however, there is some progress on the
perception front, with analyst Adam Zewe reporting that researchers at MIT
have created a robotic system that can locate lost items. “The system,
RFusion, is a robotic arm with a camera and radio frequency (RF) antenna
attached to its gripper. It fuses signals from the antenna with visual
input from the camera to locate and retrieve an item, even if the item is
buried under a pile and completely out of view.”

According to Fadel Adib, associate professor in the Department of
Electrical Engineering and Computer Science and director of the Signal
Kinetics group in the MIT Media Lab, “This idea of being able to find
items in a chaotic world is an open problem that we’ve been working on for
a few years. Having robots that are able to search for things under a pile
is a growing need in industry today. Right now, you can think of this as a
Roomba on steroids, but in the near term, this could have a lot of
applications in manufacturing and warehouse environments.”7

Public Perception

As a general matter, the public is adopting a “wait and see” attitude
toward robots and robotics, as the reality of robot technology has not
begun to approach the visions of science fiction writers or business
futurists. While some consumers, for example, have embraced robot vacuum
cleaners, they would prefer – and are probably anxiously anticipating –
the development of a robot maid capable of clearing a dinner table,
loading a dishwasher, and stacking clean plates in a kitchen cupboard.
Unfortunately, “Rosey the Robot” is still years, if not decades, away

The good news is that robot technology is still evolving, use cases are
expanding, and the prospects of successfully integrating robots into
people’s business and personal lives are hopeful.

Types of Robots

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The vitality of today’s robot market can be seen in the sheer variety of
robot types.8


A new breed of industrial robot, a collaborative robot, or cobot, “can
directly and safely interact with humans in a shared workspace. Cobots are
typically used for pick and place, palletizing, quality inspection, and
machine tending.”9


A drone is an unmanned vehicle designed to perform specific services,
such as delivering packages, enabling Internet access, performing manual
labor, and, most prominently, conducting surveillance operations.

While most people think of drones as flying objects, commonly designated
as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) or unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), the
drone market also encompasses:

  • Unmanned ground vehicles (UGV)
  • Unmanned surface vehicles (USV), e.g., boats or surface craft
  • Unmanned underwater vehicles, e.g., submersibles or submarines


An exoskeleton is a wearable machine. Powered by a system of electric
motors, pneumatics, levers, and hydraulics, exoskeletons augment a
person’s physical skills and endurance through robotics. In Figure 1, Army
researchers evaluate a prototype soft exosuit device developed for
the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

Figure 1. Exoskeleton

Figure 1. Exoskeleton

Source: US Army photo by Tom Faulkner


A humanoid is a robot designed to resemble a person. Owing to their
appearance, humanoids are considered “more approachable” than conventional
robots, and better positioned to interact in human environments. They also
help researchers replicate how people perform basic mechanical functions
like walking and grasping.

Figure 2. Geminoid F

Figure 2. Geminoid F

Source: Hiroshi Ishiguro Laboratories, ATR


A medical robot comes equipped with miniaturized cameras and precision
lasers to conduct minimally invasive surgical procedures.


A security robot is an autonomous or remote-controlled vehicle designed

  • Perform routine security sweeps, in the manner of a security officer.
  • Conduct military operations, sometimes lethal.
  • Retrieve bombs and other dangerous munitions.
  • Search for missing persons in hazardous locales.

Figure 3. Military Robot

Figure 3. Military Robot

Source: Quillette

Military robots, in particular, are highly controversial and, as defense
experts argue, highly necessary, enabling a “new era of machine-driven
warfare.” According to analyst Zachary Fryer-Biggs, “Critics, both inside
and outside of the military, worry about not being able to predict or
understand decisions made by artificially intelligent machines, about
computer instructions that are badly written or hacked, and about machines
somehow straying outside the parameters created by their inventors. Some
also argue that allowing weapons to decide to kill violates the ethical
and legal norms governing the use of force on the battlefield since the
horrors of World War II.”

Despite any misgivings, every branch of the US Armed Forces is pursuing
military robot development, “seeking ways … to harness gargantuan leaps
in image recognition and data processing for the purpose of creating a
faster, more precise, less human kind of warfare.”10


Utilizing a technology called robotic process automation (RPA), a
software robot is a program that performs basic, routine tasks – tasks
that would otherwise occupy enterprise staff. Software robots can
generally function faster, cheaper, and more accurately than their human


A telepresence robot is a remote-controlled, wheeled device with video
and audio capabilities that stands in for a person. “Workers can use it to
collaborate with colleagues at a distant office, and doctors can use it to
check on patients.”11

Figure 4. Telepresence Robot

Figure 4. Telepresence Robot

Source: Smashing Robotics


A vehicular robot is an autonomous or remote-controlled vehicle designed

  • Transport passengers, e.g., self-driving car
  • Carry cargo, e.g., self-driving truck
  • Explore distant, often hostile terrain, e.g., planetary rover

Figure 5. Mars Opportunity Rover

Figure 5. Mars Opportunity Rover

Source: NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory


Xenobots are “biological robots” created from frog cells. They can work
together, heal themselves, even self-replicate, and could contribute to
advancements in regenerative medicine.

Figure 6. Xenobot

Figure 6. Xenobot


Robot Operating System

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First introduced in 2009, “the Robot Operating System (ROS) is a
flexible framework for writing robot software. It is a collection of
tools, libraries, and conventions that aim to simplify the task of
creating complex and robust robot behavior across a wide variety of
robotic platforms.”12

Moreover, ROS is the “norm for teaching robotics” and “the basis for most
robotics research.” It is also, of course, widely deployed inside robots
that are running in production all around the world.13

The current version of ROS is ROS 2.

ROS is featured in Amazon Web Services’ AWS Robomaker, which, according to
the vendor, is a service that makes it easy to develop, test, and deploy
intelligent robotics applications at scale. RoboMaker extends the most
widely used open-source robotics software framework, [the] Robot Operating
System (ROS), with connectivity to cloud services. This includes AWS machine
learning services, monitoring services, and analytics services that enable a
robot to stream data, navigate, communicate, comprehend, and learn.
RoboMaker provides a robotics development environment for application
development, a robotics simulation service to accelerate application
testing, and a robotics fleet management service for remote application
deployment, update, and management.14

The Robot Resistance

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Before adopting robot technology, enterprise planners should consider the
potential negative consequences.

Robots will require special security, increasing their operating costs

Rather than robots attacking people (a common science fiction theme), the
public’s antipathy toward robots (probably due to their job-stealing
reputation) has prompted some people to attack robots. As Jonah Engel
Bromwich reported in The New York Times, there have been several
isolated incidents of violence against robots:

  • “A hitchhiking robot was beheaded in Philadelphia.
  • “A security robot was punched to the ground in Silicon Valley.
  • “Another security bot, in San Francisco, was covered in a tarp and
    smeared with barbecue sauce.”15

In an environment where robots become increasingly prominent, enterprise
owners will have to invest in robot protection, thereby increasing the
cost of robot operations.

Robots may be subject to special taxes, decreasing their economic

It sounds bizarre, but as Eduardo Porter reported in another New
York Times
article, “South Korea, the most robotized country in the
world, instituted a robot tax of sorts in 2018 when it reduced the tax
deduction on business investments in automation.

“There are two sound arguments for taxing robots. The easiest is this:
Governments need the money. In the United States, income taxes account for
half of the $3 trillion collected every year by the Internal Revenue
Service; payroll taxes account for another third. Two years ago, the
McKinsey Global Institute found that the job functions that are ‘most
susceptible to automation’ in the United States account for 51 percent of
the activities in the economy and $2.7 trillion worth of wages. The
Institute estimates ‘half of today’s work activities could be automated by
2055.’ If that happens, hundreds of billions of tax dollars would be lost
every year.”16

In an environment where robots – or automation itself – is taxed,
enterprise owners will have to recalculate the return on their robot

Robots have a public relations problem, likely requiring a marketing

A Pew Research Center survey conducted in May 2017 revealed that:

  • “The public generally expresses more worry than enthusiasm about
    emerging automation technologies – especially when it comes to jobs.
  • “Americans are reluctant to incorporate these [automation]
    technologies into their own lives.
  • “The public supports policies that would limit the scope of automation
  • “Some workers report that they already have been impacted by
  • “Americans worry widespread automation will lead to more inequality
    and leave people adrift in their lives.”17

In an environment where the public is generally pessimistic about robots
and automation, enterprise owners will have to conduct a public relations
campaign emphasizing the benefits of robot technology, again increasing
the cost of robot operations.

Robot Futures

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The future of robots, both in business and society, is likely linked to
several key issues.

Robot Self-Learning

The Boston Consulting Group predicts that by 2030, robots will possess
the all-important ability to learn. “Today, simulation tools are used to
teach robots how to solve problems in the real world. But this brute force
method isn’t satisfactory because situational complexity often makes it
impossible to train robots to respond to unexpected events in flexible and
intelligent ways. However, new research from nonprofit artificial
intelligence think tank OpenAI that focuses on guiding neural networks to
navigate progressively more-difficult and randomized environments appears
to be producing strong results. The first application involves a
human-like robotic hand that can manipulate and solve a Rubik’s Cube
without human input. This training effort required tremendous computing
power but over the course of 50 hours, the system, using the cloud and
distributed computing, collected approximately 100 years’ worth of

Robot Self-Sufficiency

As analyst Matt Simon opines, “Increasingly sophisticated machines may
populate our world, but for robots to be really useful, they’ll have to
become more self-sufficient. After all, it would be impossible to program
a home robot with the instructions for gripping each and every object it
ever might encounter. You want it to learn on its own, which is where
advances in artificial intelligence come in.”19

Human-Robot Interaction

Except in cases where robots replace humans, humans and robots will have
to work together. Can people truly cooperate with robots, or will human
resentment sabotage the relationship? The early generations of
collaboration between robots and their human partners will help answer
this question.

Robot Decision-Making

One of Isaac Asimov’s famous “Three Laws of Robotics” states that “A
robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human
being to come to harm.” In the case of self-driving cars, this law is
being tested. While few deny that self-driving cars will reduce overall
accidents, there will be scenarios in which an accident cannot be avoided,
which may, for example, force the car’s program to choose between a
collision that injures one of the car’s passengers or injures a
pedestrian. While, hopefully, such ethical dilemmas will be explored in
advance – and the car given specific instructions on how to respond – the
general public may not agree with the chosen solution. In addition, there
may be unanticipated scenarios where the car is compelled to “make its own
judgment call.” Whether for self-driving cars or other applications, will
the public trust robot decision-making? If not, how will that influence
the way in which robots are permitted to engage with society?

Industry Evolution

Just as the evolution of robot technology will affect the business of
robotics, the robotics business will influence the technology. The Boston
Consulting Group envisions three industry scenarios:

  1. The Rise of Customized Solutions” – Similar to where we are
    today, companies will “design robot systems to serve specific
  2. The Robot as a Standard Automation Device” – These robots
    would be “less complex,” but “easy to install, configure, and
    integrate.” Examples might include an “e-vehicle-charging robot” for the
    home, or an “autonomous picking robot” for a manufacturing plant.
  3. Google World” – In this scenario, “breakthrough advances in
    machine intelligence, physical adeptness, and connectivity result in a
    spate of smart robot modules handling complex and dynamic situations.
    The biggest growth area is likely to be in professional services

Robot Reality Vs. Hype

Finally, from a macroeconomic perspective, no one really knows whether
future generations of robots will take jobs or create jobs, and in what
measure. Should people fear robots or welcome their arrival? The answer
will likely determine the pace and direction of robot technology.


1 Hans Peter Moravec. “Robot Technology.” Encyclopedia
. 2020.

2 Kevin Roose. “The Hidden Automation Agenda of the Davos
Elite.” The New York Times. January 25, 2019.

3 Greg Nichols. “Robotics in Business: Everything Humans Need
to Know.” ZDNet. July 18, 2018.

4 Lior Elazary. “Advancements in Robotics: Predictions for
2019.” RoboticsTomorrow. January 10, 2019.

5 Karen Hao. “A New Generation of AI-Powered Robots Is Taking
Over Warehouses.” MIT Technology Review. August 6, 2021.

6 Lior Elazary. “Advancements in Robotics: Predictions for
2019.” RoboticsTomorrow. January 10, 2019.

7 Adam Zewe. “A Robot That Finds Lost Items.” MIT News Office.
October 5, 2021.

8 “Types of Robots.” IEEE. 2018.

9 “What Are the Different Types of Industrial Robots and Their
Applications?” Process Solutions, Inc. October 1, 2018.

10 Zachary Fryer-Biggs. “Coming Soon to a Battlefield: Robots
That Can Kill.” The Atlantic. September 3, 2019.

11 “Types of Robots.” IEEE. 2018.

12 “About ROS.” Open Source Robotics Foundation.

13 “Why ROS?” Open Robotics. 2021.

14 “Overview of Amazon Web Services.” Amazon Web Services,
Inc. August 5, 2021:64.

15 Jonah Engel Bromwich. “Why Do We Hurt Robots?” The New
York Times
. January 19, 2019.

16 Eduardo Porter. “Don’t Fight the Robots. Tax Them.” The
New York Times
. February 23, 2019.

17 Monica Anderson. “Six Key Findings on How Americans See the
Rise of Automation.” Pew Research Center. October 4, 2017.

18 Ralph Lassig, Markus Lorenz, Emmanuel Sissimatos, Ina
Wicker, and Tilman Buchner. “Robotics Outlook 2030: How Intelligence and
Mobility Will Shape the Future.” Boston Consulting Group. June 28, 2021.

19 Matt Simon. “The WIRED Guide to Robots.” Wired.
May 17, 2018.

20 Ralph Lassig, Markus Lorenz, Emmanuel Sissimatos, Ina
Wicker, and Tilman Buchner. “Robotics Outlook 2030: How Intelligence and
Mobility Will Shape the Future.” Boston Consulting Group. June 28, 2021.

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About the Author

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James G. Barr is a leading business continuity analyst
and business writer with more than 30 years’ IT experience. A member of
“Who’s Who in Finance and Industry,” Mr. Barr has designed, developed, and
deployed business continuity plans for a number of Fortune 500 firms. He
is the author of several books, including How to Succeed in Business
BY Really Trying
, a member of Faulkner’s Advisory Panel, and a
senior editor for Faulkner’s Security Management Practices.
Mr. Barr can be reached via e-mail at

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