Technical Applications


Robotics, in its full meaning, refers to an autonomous system, capable of responding to much greater uncertainty in its environment than the flexible manufacturing systems currently in use.


As robots become more autonomous, it becomes possible to substitute them for people in particularly hazardous situations such as fire fighting, mine removal, processing of hazardous materials and in space. The competitiveness of U.S. industry depends critically on the increasing automation of many of its manufacturing processes in order to reduce labor costs. For such devices to be most effective, they must also be very flexible so that they can be easily reprogrammed for another task. The importance of such development has been recognized by NIST in their support of automated manufacturing systems. Machine tool companies, particularly those in Japan and Germany, are also making considerable investments in robotic devices for manufacturing. Automobile companies such as Mercedes Benz have announced research programs in autonomous on-road vehicles.


Autonomous robotic device technology contributes to job creation and economic growth in many ways. It is an important part of future automated factories which will include autonomous robots, as well as currently available robotic machine tools. It also allows greater automation of building and construction, especially in dangerous situations. Development of robotics also contributes to harnessing information technology by stimulating research into software algorithms for combining theoretical part dimensions with material characteristics, sensor outputs, and information about motion in space. There are important applications of robotics in improving national security. It contributes to the improvement of the defense manufacturing base in the same ways as it contributes to the civilian manufacturing base. In addition, robots have the potential to improve significantly U.S. warfighting capabilities and reduce casualties. They can safely remove mines, handle and dispose of hazardous materials, and perform construction under fire. They can also provide real-time reconnaissance information and target spotting without exposing humans to danger.


Europe, Japan, and the United States are at rough parity in robotics technology in terms of repeatability, accuracy, mobility, and speed of motion; but have strengths in different technology areas. For example, Europeans have what some industry experts believe are the best vision systems recognition algorithms, Japan is generally strong in robotics hardware such as manipulator and servomotor technology, and the United States excels in systems integration, robot control, sensors, and vision software. Despite the overall technology parity enjoyed by the United States, the world market for robots is dominated by European and Japanese firms. The current world leader is Asea Brown Boveri followed closely by the Japanese firms Fanuc, Yaskawa, Matsushita, and Kawasaki. Japanese firms are far ahead of the rest of the world in the number of industrial robots installed but most of these are low- or medium-technology products. Japanese market success has been based on high- volume, less sophisticated robots while European firms have been more successful in advanced robots.