What’s a robot?

Baichtal (2015) reminds us that “Pretty much everyone loves robots. It’s a fact!” In the literature, we dream of robots that will clean the house (The Jetsons), drive us to work (I, Robot), run our errands (Red Dwarf), wage war (Terminator), and be our faithful companions (Star Wars). In real life, there are machines that do all these tasks, at least a prototype level. Companies like iRobot, Boston Robotics, and many others are working on robots to fill these needs and many others. But, the term “robot” really covers a variety of machine types and functions. Are all mechanical “beings” robots?
For the purposes of this discussion, let us define robots as a state between a mechanical construct like a 1980 Ford Pinto that requires full human interaction to perform and a presumably self-realized construct like R2D2 in Star Wars. A robot should also be able to make some decisions on its own but be governed by programming logic and rules.
This rather vague opening allows us to further discuss the parameters that define these machines. To be useful, the robot must do something. Let us further define that the robot must move and be able to do so under its own power and direction. Baichtal (2015) suggests that the robot must interact with its environment though sensors, programmed instructions, or human interaction.
At the moment, constructs like industrial manufacturing machines, the “sandwich robot” (JRK, 2011), and the next generation of automobiles fit this general viewpoint while machines like smart phones and vending machines do not.
To be useful, the robot must do something that benefits either a human or a process. This purpose generally defines the kinds of robots that exist. There are animatronic robots who entertain us, cleaning robots like the Roomba, assembly robots that build our cars and perform other industrial needs, combat robots which aid our soldiers, Drones and ROVs which allow a human operator to remain safe behind the lines while directing its mission, food and beverage robots who make, inspect, and assemble our foods, and of course, robots that are designed to interact as companions to people.
A robot is typically made up of a body placed over a chassis that contains mounting equipment for sensors, control systems, motors, manipulators, and a power supply. The body can be rigid or flexible and acts as a cover to protect the moving and/or fragile components of the robot. This “skin” layer can act as the barrier between the robot and the environment. If the body is considered the skin, the chassis could be considered the skeleton supporting the other components that make up the robot. Sensors work to being stimulation from the environment to the robot and may include optical, tactile, or aural capabilities. The sensors feed into the control systems that determine how the robot will behave based on the environmental inputs. The behaviors may be to move the robot, manipulate something in the environment, interact with a human or other input source, or any of a myriad of other tasks.


Baichtal, J. (2015). Robot Builder: The Beginner’s Guide to Building Robots. Que: Indianapolis, IN
JRK (September 29, 2011). PR2 getting a sandwich. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RIYRQC2iBp0