WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. – The population of robots nearly doubled over the last decade in North America alone, and they are becoming increasingly important in applications ranging from quality control to space exploration, surgery to the service industry.
So says the most recent edition of the "Handbook of Industrial Robotics," complete with a forward by late science fiction writer Isaac Asimov and contributions from 120 experts, some of them giants in research and industry. The term "industrial robots" refers to all robots manufactured by industry, not simply robots used in industry.
The handbook's editor, Purdue University industrial engineering professor Shimon Nof, says robots have been steadily evolving since the book's first edition was published 15 years ago.
"It is interesting to see that the principles we covered in the first edition are still correct, but we know so much more," Nof says. "We are getting to think about coordination and collaboration among machines and multi-robot system, and there is even a section on group behavior of robots, where different kinds of robots can help each other perform certain jobs. The importance of this second edition of the handbook is to summarize where we are today."
Half of the chapters in the nearly 1,400-page handbook are new, including one chapter on "human factors" in robotics.
"Maybe in 1985 it was just a vision to integrate humans and robots," says Nof, who specializes in "robot ergonomics," or improving the ease and efficiency with which people and robots work together. "Today, it is quite common to have teams that include both robots and people."
Examples of such integration include applications in manufacturing, agriculture and construction. Since the first edition of the handbook, robotics has benefited from innovations in technologies dealing with electronic controls and sensors, computer vision systems, virtual reality, artificial intelligence, nanotechnology and other areas.
At the same time, the field recently has seen the emergence of new types of devices, including tiny micro- and nano-robots and robots with multiple arms or legs.
Meanwhile, popular attitudes about robots have changed over the past 15 years, as well, Nof says.
"The fear that robots would replace workers has completely disappeared," he says. Instead of displacing large numbers of employees, robots have brought about a more highly trained work force better capable of running robots and computers.
"We have many more trained people in robotics now," Nof says. "Some new challenges for robotics researchers are better human-robot collaboration interfaces, robot mobility and navigation in unknown surroundings, and better robot intelligence for services and for public transportation."
The handbook, which sells for $150, was published last summer by John Wiley & Sons Inc. It is intended as an educational resource for students, engineers and managers and is accompanied by a multimedia CD-ROM that includes segments on the history of robotics and descriptions of various types of robots, along with pictures and videos.
Among some of the trends detailed in the handbook:
• The number of robots per 10,000 manufacturing employees skyrocketed from 1980 to 1996. For example, it went from 8.3 to 265 in Japan, 2 to 79 in Germany, 3 to 38 in the United States and zero to 98 in Singapore.
• In roughly the same time frame, the world robot population surged, going from about 35,000 in 1982 to 677,000 in 1996 and an estimated 950,000 in the year 2000.
• In the five years from 1992 to 1997, the robot population in North America shot up 78 percent, from 46,000 to 82,000.
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