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What is a Robotic Arm?

By Phil Shepley
Updated May 16, 2024
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A robotic arm can be any of a number of mechanical, programmable devices that are designed to manipulate objects in a way that is similar to the human arm. The robotic arm is one of the most useful pieces of technology to be introduced in the 20th century, and quickly became a cornerstone in many areas of manufacturing. It can be used for many different jobs and functions that may be too tedious, difficult or dangerous for a human to do. You might first think of the automobile industry when thinking about robotic arms, but they can be used for many other useful tasks besides welding and painting auto parts.

The first robotic arm was developed in the 1950s by a scientist named George Devol, Jr., before which robotics were largely the products of science fiction and the imagination. The development of robotics was slow for a while, with many of the most useful applications being involved with space exploration. The use of robots to aid in industrialization weren’t fully realized until the 1980s, when robotic arms began to be integrated in automobile and other manufacturing assembly lines.

While working in a fashion similar to the human arm, robot arms can still have a much wider range of motion since their design can be purely up to the imagination of their creator. The joint that connects the segments of a robotic arm, for example, can rotate as well as moving like a hinge. The end of the robotic arm designed to actually do the work that it was designed for is known as the end effector, and can be designed for practically any task, for example gripping like a hand, painting, tightening screws and more. These robots can be fixed in one place, for example along an assembly line, or they can be mobile so they can be transported to do a variety of tasks in different places.

Autonomous robotic arms are designed to be programmed and then left alone to repeat their tasks independent of human control. Conversely, a robotic arm can also be designed to be operated and controlled by a human being. A situation where human-controlled robotic arms are essential is in space exploration, where robotic arms can be used to manipulate a heavy payload or do other work in space that would be difficult or even impossible for an astronaut to do.

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