For a robot to truly be considered autonomous, it must possess three very important characteristics: Perception, Decision and Actuation.
- Perception: For an autonomous robot, perception means sensors. Laser scanners, stereo vision cameras (eyes), bump sensors (skin and hair), force-torque sensors (muscle strain), and even spectrometers (smell) are used as input devices for a robot. Similar to how a human uses the five senses to perceive the world, a robot uses sensors to perceive the environment around it.
- Decision: Autonomous robots have a similar decision making structure as humans. The “brain” of a robot is usually a computer, and it makes decisions based on what its mission is, and what information it receives along the way. Autonomous robots also have a capability that is similar to the neurological system in humans. This is called an embedded system; it operates faster and with higher authority than the computer that is executing a mission plan and parsing data. This is how the robot can decide to stop if it notices an obstacle in its way, if it detects a problem with itself, or if its emergency-stop button is pressed.
- Actuation: People have actuators called muscles. They take all kinds of shapes and perform all kinds of functions. Autonomous robots can have all kinds of actuators too, and a motor of some kind is usually at the heart of the actuator. Whether it’s a wheel, linear actuator, or hydraulic ram, there’s always a motor converting energy into movement.
In summation, a truly autonomous robot is one that can perceive its environment, make decisions based on what it perceives and/or has been programmed to recognize and then actuate a movement or manipulation within that environment.
The best example of an autonomous robot is the Roomba. The Roomba is easily the most prolific, truly autonomous robot on the market today. While only a few hundred dollars, not thousands like many robots for manufacturing, the Roomba can make decisions and take action based on what it perceives in its environment. It can be placed in a room, left alone, and it will do its job without any help or supervision from a person. This is true autonomy.
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