The History of Robots with a a Comprehensive Timeline

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Robots have been around for centuries, and their history is fascinating. Here’s a brief overview of the history of robots.

Early Beginnings

The concept of artificial servants and companions dates back to ancient legends of Cadmus, who sowed dragon teeth that turned into soldiers, and Pygmalion, whose statue of Galatea came to life. Many ancient mythologies included artificial people, such as the talking mechanical handmaidens built by the Greek god Hephaestus out of gold. The Buddhist scholar Daoxuan described humanoid automata crafted from metals that recite sacred texts in a cloister which housed a fabulous clock. The “precious metal-people” wept when Buddha Shakyamuni died. Humanoid automations also feature in the Epic of King Gesar, a Central Asian cultural hero. Early Chinese lore on the legendary carpenter Lu Ban and the philosopher Mozi described mechanical imitations of animals and demons. The implications of humanoid automatons were discussed in Liezi, a compilation of Daoist texts which went on to become a classic.

Industrial Revolution

During the industrial revolution, humans developed the structural engineering capability to control electricity so that machines could be powered with small motors. In the early 20th century, the notion of a humanoid machine was developed. The first uses of modern robots were in factories as industrial robots. These industrial robots were fixed machines capable of manufacturing tasks which allowed production with less human work. Digitally programmed industrial robots with artificial intelligence have been built since the 2000s.

1959: Invention of the initial industrial robot by George Devol and Joseph Engelberger

Revolutionizing global manufacturing, the Unimate was the first industrial robot, born from a 1954 mechanical arm patent by George Devol. Developed by Joseph Engelberger, it weighed two tons, controlled by a magnetic drum program, using hydraulic actuators and programmed in joint coordinates. This innovation set the stage for a transformative era in automation[1].

1961: Unimation set up the first factory robot at GM.

The first  industrial robot, deployed at the GM Ternstedt plant in Trenton, NJ, handled production tasks with precision. Operating on step-by-step commands stored on a magnetic drum, the 4,000-pound Unimate robot sequentially arranged hot diecast metal pieces. Despite a production cost of US$65,000, Unimation marketed it at a price of US$18,000.[1][2]

1962: The first cylindrical robot was the Versatran from AMF

 American Machine and Foundry (AMF) installed six Versatran robots at the Ford factory in Canton, USA. It earned its name, “Versatran,” signifying versatile transfer.[1][3]

1967: The first industrial robot in Europe

The first industrial robot in Europe was the Unimate, which was installed at Metallverken, Uppsala Väsby, Sweden in 1967.  The Unimate was the first mass-produced robotic arm for factory automation, and it was developed by American inventor George Devol and businessman Joseph Engelberger[4]. The Unimate was a hydraulic-powered robot that could lift and transport heavy loads. It was cylindrical in shape and had a flat top that could be used to carry materials. The robot was controlled by a computer and could be programmed to perform a variety of tasks.[2]

1968:The Tentacle Arm was developed by Marvin Minsky at MIT.

The arm had twelve joints and was designed to reach around obstacles. It was controlled by a PDP-6 computer or via a joystick. The arm was strong enough to lift a person, yet gentle enough to embrace a child. The Tentacle Arm was hydraulic-powered and moved like an octopus.[5][6]

1969: The first spot-welding robots were introduced by GM at its Lordstown assembly plant.

The Unimation robots boosted productivity and allowed more than 90% of body welding operations to be automated, compared to only 20% to 40% at traditional plants. This was a significant improvement in efficiency and helped to reduce costs for manufacturers. [1][7]

1969: Trallfa, based in Norway, presents the world’s first commercial painting robot.

Trallfa, a Norwegian company, developed the world’s first industrial spray painting robot in 1969[8]. The robot was used for bath tub enameling and established Trallfa as the leading supplier of robots for spray painting applications. Today, Trallfa is part of ABB, a Swiss-Swedish multinational corporation that specializes in robotics and automation technology[9].

1969: Unimate robots make their way into the Japanese market.

Kawasaki Heavy Industries, or Kawasaki, signed a technical license agreement with Unimation in 1968. Kawasaki sent its engineers to the United States to gain additional knowledge and import sample machines back to its factory in Japan for continuous research and development. A year later, the first industrial robot was domestically manufactured in Japan. The robot was called the Kawasaki-Unimate 2000 and was used for welding and handling tasks in the automotive industry[10].

1971:The initial production line featuring hydraulic actuated robots was established at Daimler Benz

For Daimler-Benz, KUKA built Europe’s first welding transfer line with robots in 1971[11]. The welding transfer line was a major breakthrough in the automotive industry, as it allowed for the automation of welding tasks that were previously done by hand. The robots used in the welding transfer line were hydraulic-powered and could perform welding tasks with a high degree of accuracy. The welding transfer line was a huge success, and it helped to pave the way for the use of robots in other areas of manufacturing.[1][12]

1972:SHAKEY: Pioneering the World’s First Mobile Intelligent Robot

Shakey the Robot was developed by SRI International in the late 1960s and early 1970s. It was the first mobile robot with the ability to perceive and reason about its surroundings. Shakey could perform tasks that required planning, route-finding, and the rearranging of simple objects [13]. Shakey was also the first robot to demonstrate the use of robot vision for mobile robot guidance. The robot was equipped with a TV camera, an antenna radio link, detectors, and bumpers to visually interpret its environment and figure out how to complete a task given by a user. This was done by locating items, navigating around them, and reasoning about its actions to complete the task . Shakey was a major breakthrough in the field of robotics and greatly influenced modern robotics and AI techniques. Today, Shakey resides in the Computer History Museum[14].

1972:Installation of robot production lines in Europe and Japan.

FIAT in Italy and Nissan in Japan installed production lines of spot-welding robots in 1972[15]. These robots were hydraulic-powered and could perform welding tasks with a high degree of accuracy. The use of spot-welding robots allowed for the automation of welding tasks that were previously done by hand. This was a significant improvement in efficiency and helped to reduce costs for manufacturers. The success of these robots paved the way for the use of robots in other areas of manufacturing.

1973: Kuka introduced the first robot with six electromechanically driven axes.

KUKA, a German company, began developing its own robots after using Unimate robots for several years. In 1973, KUKA introduced the Famulus, the first robot to have six electromechanically driven axes[16]. The Famulus was a significant breakthrough in the field of robotics, as it allowed for greater flexibility and range of motion than previous robots. The robot was versatile and could be used for a variety of tasks, including welding and handling. The success of the Famulus paved the way for the development of other robots with similar capabilities.

1973: Scheinemann commenced the production of the Vicarm/Stanford arm at Vicarm Inc., USA.

Victor Scheinman, a mechanical engineering student at the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Lab (SAIL), developed the Stanford Arm in 1969. The Stanford Arm was the first all-electric 6-axis mechanical manipulator for assembly and automation that was capable of computer control. Scheinman commercialized the robot arm as the PUMA, or Progammable Universal Machine for Assembly, which is used in almost every industry application today[17]. In 1973, Scheinman started Vicarm to manufacture his robot arms. Vicarm sold the design to Joseph Engelberger’s Unimation in 1977, and development of the PUMA systems continued [18].

1973:The first minicomputer-controlled industrial robot is introduced to the market.

The first commercially available minicomputer-controlled industrial robot was developed by Richard Hohn for Cincinnati Milacron Corporation in 1973[19]. The robot was called the T3, The Tomorrow Tool. The T3 was a significant breakthrough in the field of robotics, as it allowed for greater flexibility and range of motion than previous robots. The robot was versatile and could be used for a variety of tasks, including welding and handling. The success of the T3 paved the way for the development of other robots with similar capabilities.

1974: The first fully electric, microprocessor-controlled industrial robot, ASEA’s IRB 6, enters the scene.

The ASEA IRB 6 was the world’s first fully electrically driven and microprocessor-controlled robot. It was developed by ASEA in Sweden in 1972-1973 on assignment by the ASEA CEO Curt Nicolin and was shown for the first time at the end of August 1973[20]. The robot allowed movement in 5 axes with a lift capacity of 6 kg. The ASEA IRB 6 was constructed by Björn Weichbrodt, Ove Kullborg, Bengt Nilsson, and Herbert Kaufmann and was manufactured by ASEA in Västerås. The robot was equipped with a TV camera, an antenna radio link, detectors, and bumpers to visually interpret its environment and figure out how to complete a task given by a user. This was done by locating items, navigating around them, and reasoning about its actions to complete the task[20]. The ASEA IRB 6 sold 1900 copies during the next 17 years (1975–1992) and became the Swedish symbol for a new labor market, shared between man and robot[20].

1975: ABB engineered an industrial robot capable of carrying a payload of up to 60 kg

The IRB60 was developed by ABB to meet the demand of the automotive industry for more payload and flexibility. The robot was first delivered to Saab in Sweden for welding car bodies. The IRB60 has a payload capacity of 60 kg and is capable of handling a variety of tasks, including welding, painting, and material handling. The robot is highly flexible and can be programmed to perform a wide range of tasks. The IRB60 is a significant breakthrough in the field of robotics, as it allowed for greater flexibility and range of motion than previous robots. The success of the IRB60 paved the way for the development of other robots with similar capabilities[1].

1975: NASA used the robotic arms in the Viking 1 and 2

The Viking 1 and 2 landers, launched by NASA in 1975, were equipped with robotic arms that were used to collect soil samples and perform experiments on the Martian surface. The robotic arms were designed to be highly flexible and could be programmed to perform a wide range of tasks. The Viking landers continued monitoring weather changes at the surface until Nov. 11, 1982, and April 12, 1980, respectively, together returning 4,500 photographs from the two landing sites[21].

1978: The Programmable Universal Machine for Assembly (PUMA) was developed by Unimation/Vicarm in the USA, with assistance from General Motors.

The PUMA was the first mass-produced robotic arm for factory automation, and it was capable of performing a wide range of tasks, including welding and handling. General Motors had concluded that 90% of all parts handled during assembly weighed five pounds or less.
The robot was versatile and could be programmed to perform a variety of tasks. The success of the PUMA paved the way for the development of other robots with similar capabilities[22].

1979:The RE 15, Reis’ first six-axis robot with integrated control, originated in Obernburg, Germany

The first six-axis robot with its own control system was developed by Reis Robotics in Obernburg, Germany in 1979[1]. The robot was called the RE 15 and was a significant breakthrough in the field of robotics. The RE 15 was a highly flexible robot that could be programmed to perform a wide range of tasks, including welding and handling. The robot was versatile and could be used for a variety of applications. The success of the RE 15 paved the way for the development of other robots with similar capabilities.

1981: The first implementation of machine vision

In 1981, a bin-picking robotics system was demonstrated at the University of Rhode Island in the USA. The system was capable of picking parts in random orientation and positions out of a bin[23]. This was a significant breakthrough in the field of robotics, as it allowed for greater flexibility and range of motion than previous robots. The success of the bin-picking robotics system paved the way for the development of other robots with similar capabilities.

1981:IBM Introduces AML, a Cutting-edge Programming Language Tailored for Robotics

A Manufacturing Language (AML) is a robot programming language created by IBM in the 1970s and 80s, for its RS 1 robot and other robots in its Robot Manufacturing System product line[24]. AML was designed to be a well-structured, semantically powerful interactive language for robot programming[25]. The language was specifically developed for robotic applications and was easy to use. Manufacturing engineers could quickly and easily create application programs using an IBM Personal Computer. AML permitted the robots to respond moment-by-moment to changes in their work environment[26].

1984: ABB, a Swedish company, has developed the fastest assembly robot known as the IRB 1000

It featured a vertical arm, resembling a hanging pendulum robot, enabling swift operation across expansive areas without the necessity for extensive traversal. Its efficiency surpassed that of traditional arm robots, boasting a remarkable 50% increase in speed. (Lars Westerlund, The Extended Arm of Man)[27].

1988: he first implementation of an AMR in a hospital environment

One of the pioneering Autonomous Mobile Robots (AMRs), capable of autonomously planning and executing its path to a destination, was developed by Joseph Engelberger’s company, Transitions Research Corporation (later rebranded as HelpMate Robotics Inc). Known as Helpmate, this robot served as a courier for transporting objects within hospitals. The first unit was acquired and deployed by a hospital in Danbury, Connecticut (USA). Soon thereafter, Helpmate found widespread adoption, reaching over 100 hospitals worldwide. Image © Kaluga.2012 (scan from print), CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons[1].

1996: Germany’s KUKA introduced the first PC-based robot control system

For the first time, real-time movement of robots became achievable through a 6D mouse on an operator control device. This teach pendant included a Windows user interface for control and programming tasks[28].

1999:The first Surgical brought the Da Vinci surgical robot to commercialization.

The da Vinci is a surgical robot designed for minimally invasive procedures. It features four arms equipped with surgical instruments and cameras, all remotely controlled by a physician from a console[29].

2002: Roomba, the first robot vacuum cleaner made available for domestic use

Roomba, developed and commercialized by iRobot, became the pioneer in commercially available autonomous vacuum cleaners. It possessed the capability to detect dirty spots on the floor, navigate around obstacles and stairs, and autonomously return to its charging dock upon completion[30].

2003: Robots Journey to Mars

n January 2004, two robotic geologists, named Spirit and Opportunity, landed on opposite sides of the red planet. Exhibiting significantly greater mobility than the 1997 Mars Pathfinder rover, these robotic explorers have traversed extensive distances across the Martian surface, engaging in field geology and conducting atmospheric observations. Equipped with identical and advanced sets of scientific instruments, both rovers have discovered signs of ancient Martian environments, indicating intermittently wet and habitable conditions[31].

2006: Comau, based in Italy, pioneered the introduction of the groundbreaking Wireless Teach Pendant (WiTP)

All conventional data communication and robot programming tasks can now be executed without the limitations imposed by cables connected to the Control Unit. Simultaneously, absolute safety is guaranteed[32].

2006: KUKA, based in Germany, unveils its inaugural Lightweight Robot

In collaboration with DLR, Institute of Robotics and Mechatronics in Germany, KUKA has crafted its lightweight robot with an aluminum outer structure. Boasting a 7 kg payload capacity and enhanced sensitivity through integrated sensors, it proves ideal for precise handling and assembly tasks. Weighing merely 16 kg—a remarkable reduction from the initial two-ton weight of the first robot—this energy-efficient and portable robotic solution excels in diverse tasks[33].

2008: FANUC, based in Japan, has introduced a robust heavy-duty robot with an impressive payload capacity of nearly 1,200 kg

“The M-2000iA stands as the world’s largest and most powerful six-axis robot,” stated Rich Meyer, Product Manager at Fanuc Robotics. “It boasts the longest reach and the most robust wrist, surpassing all other six-axis robots currently on the market. Not only does its wrist strength set a record, but more importantly, it empowers our customers to maneuver large, heavy parts over significant distances with utmost stability[1].

2008: Universal Robots made its first sale of a collaborative robot (cobot)

The Danish company Universal Robots unveiled the UR5, a robot designed to operate safely alongside human workers, eliminating the requirement for safety caging or fencing. The UR5 marked the inception of a cost-effective and user-friendly collaborative robot, opening doors for the industry to cater to small and medium-sized manufacturers that had once deemed robotics too expensive and intricate[34].

2009: Cyberdyne introduces HAL, the pioneering powered exoskeleton designed to provide support for individuals with paraplegia

HAL (Hybrid Assistive Limb) was developed collaboratively by Japan’s Tsukuba University and Cyberdyne. This powered exoskeleton is engineered to enhance and extend the physical capabilities of its users, with a focus on individuals with physical disabilities. HAL 3 specifically provides support for leg functions, while HAL 5 encompasses a full-body exoskeleton for the arms, legs, and torso. Notably, in 2013, HAL received global safety certification[35].

2011: First Humanoid Robot in Space

A Robonaut (R2B) is sent to the International Space Station (ISS), marking the introduction of the first humanoid robot in space. Initially positioned on a stationary pedestal inside the ISS, future plans involve equipping R2 with a leg for maneuvering through the station’s corridors and implementing upgrades to enable R2’s exploration outside into the vacuum of space[36].

2014: Softbank introduces Pepper

Pepper, a collaborative creation of the French company Aldebaran Robotics SAS and the Japanese telecommunications and media group SoftBank Mobile Corp, stands as the premier humanoid social robot. This innovative robot possesses the capability to identify faces and discern basic human emotions by analyzing facial expressions and tone of voice. Currently deployed in diverse locations such as shops, restaurants, and other public spaces worldwide, Pepper represents a groundbreaking development in social robotics[37].

2016:The Meca500 – smallest 6-axis-robot

The Meca500 stands as the most compact six-axis industrial robot available, weighing merely 4.6 kg, inclusive of its embedded controller in the robot’s base. With a payload capacity of 0.5 kg, the robot excels in precision, boasting a repeatability of 5 micrometers[38].

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