Requirement 2B of the Boy Scouts of America Robotics Merit Badge has the scout describe the similarities and differences between remote control vehicles, telerobots and autonomous robots. Some of the boys may have difficulty making the distinction between remote control vehicles and telerobots. Even I, who can find almost anything on the Internet, received mostly links to pages containing the merit badge requirement when I Googled remote control versus telerobot or telerobotics. So, I thought I’d provide a little guidance with my interpretation of the spirit of the question.
Definition of Remote Control
For the purpose of this merit badge and based on my research online, I’ve come to the conclusion that when one refers to remote control, a direct connection to the object being controlled is needed. Technically speaking, a wired connection to a toy car makes it remote controlled whereas an RC or radio controlled car is wireless – needing no direct physical connection. The lack of physical connection to the device being controlled and the greater distance between the operator and the device make it telerobotic. Here are some examples of remote controlled devices.
Note the remote control spotlight pictured to the left. It features numerous points of rotation, like a sophisticated telerobot, allowing the controller to adjust the beam in any direction without laying hands on the light, itself. Notice the control system in the lower right corner of the photo. It is similar to a car mirror adjustment system that relies on a wire, physically attached to the device, limiting its distance from the controller. While the device is operated remotely, it must remain in close proximity to the operator. There is a physical connection between the operator and the device being controlled. This is a remote control device.
The NXT Rover, pictured below, is also a remote control device as it requires a physical link between the controller and the device. By the way, the rover is an excellent example of clean, efficient design. A minimum number of parts were required to make a remote controlled car that allows steering, speed control, and even a horn!
As sophisticated as it is, it cannot travel far without the human controller being within two feet of it. Sadly, this design will not be making any missions to Mars any time soon.
Another, real-world example of a remote controlled vehicle is the Chariot Robotics Envirobot, featured elsewhere on this site. You can see the eyelets on the device where cables are attached to allow remote control of the robot.
Telerobotics is similar to remote control in that the operator is controlling the device without physically touching it. In the case of telerobotics, however; there is no physical connection to the remotely operated system, at all.
The WiFi controlled robots featured in my article on the Dexter Industries WiFi adapter, the Mars rover vehicles and police bomb disposal robots are all controlled by wireless methods. Why is this important? Would you rather disarm a bomb with a remote controlled robot where you had to remain attached to the robot to control it, or would you prefer to use a telerobot from a distance of about a half mile away?
Telerobots require an additional component to wired connections, also – remote sensory feedback. Most telerobotic systems require a remote camera or some sort of interactive component to sense what is happening on the remote end of the system. WiFi may be used within the confines of your home or office. This could control the robot and provide a video feed. A bomb disposal robot may use bluetooth or a similar, secure, high-powered radio frequency to control and view the robot in dangerous environments from a safe distance. Devices that are located in very distant locations and/or harsh environments may need to rely on radio telemetery for basic instructions, but non-visual feedback to guide the vehicle; the distance between the controller and the device may be too great to allow signals to travel between the communicators effectively.
Autonomous systems operate by making decisions based on programming and sensory feedback. Line following robots, color sorters, and even the Roomba vacuum cleaner robots are all autonomous robots. They are programmed to make decisions based on sensory feedback of their surroundings.
Many robots have a combination of two or all three of the styles listed here. The Mars rover is telerobotic, but may have a collection component where it seeks out a particular type of soil to sample, without human interaction, and reports back. There are telerobots designed to independently map out locations without human feedback but have a wired or wireless connection to occasionally “phone in” information. So don’t get too concerned if you find it difficult to name a robot that is solely of one type or another. For the purposes of the merit badge, be aware of the three types of robots, and be able to explain some of their similarities and differences. If you name a Mars rover as a telerobot, but later learn of features that make it autonomous as described above, it’s okay. It can be both. That’s one of the things that makes robotics fun!