[DGIST Series] The Role of Semiconductor Technologies in Future Robotics

By May 10, 2023 January 19th, 2024 No Comments

Imagine relaxing in the passenger seat as your fully-autonomous vehicle drives you to work while your robot butler takes care of the house chores. This once fanciful scenario can become a reality in the coming years as robotics technology is set to continue its rapid evolution to meet our needs. In order to realize this evolution, robotic systems will require sophisticated semiconductor technologies for sensing, actuation, data processing, and decision-making.

In the third episode of our series from Daegu Gyeongbuk Institute of Science and Technology (DGIST) faculty, Professor Hoe-joon Kim from the Department of Robotics and Mechatronics Engineering will explain the future of robotics and the semiconductor technologies driving their development.

From Increased Autonomy to Energy Efficiency: The Future of Robotics

Figure 1. The six developments of future robotics


Robotic technologies are now utilized in various industrial sectors and the demand for more advanced robots is higher than ever. As these technologies evolve over the coming years, they will be defined by several key properties.

One of the most significant developments in future robotics will be the increase in autonomy. Currently, most robots require human supervision or programming to perform their tasks. However, robots in the future are expected to become more autonomous, able to learn from their environment, and make decisions independently. Such self-thinking robots will be made possible by integrating advanced technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, and computer vision1.

1 Computer vision: A field of AI that enables computers and systems to derive meaningful information from digital images, videos and other visual inputs, and take actions or make recommendations based on that information.

In addition to autonomy, versatility will also be a key trait of next-generation robotics. Robots are being developed to perform a wider range of tasks in various industries, such as manufacturing, healthcare, and sports and entertainment. Future robots must therefore be designed to adapt to different environments and situations, with modular designs that allow for easy customization and reconfiguration.

As robots are set to be used in a wider range of industries and increasingly work alongside humans, safety becomes an important consideration. In the future, robots will be designed with advanced safety features that minimize the risk of injury or damage. Many safety features, such as collision detection, force sensing, and alarm systems, can already be found in commercial robots.

As robots play an ever-growing role in our daily lives, it is becoming important to design robots that can interact with humans naturally and intuitively. Advanced human-robot interaction (HRI) technologies include natural language processing and speech recognition, as well as advanced sensors and actuators that can enable robots to mimic human movement.

In addition to interacting with humans, robots will also need to communicate with each other and other devices. Therefore, advanced wireless communication technologies will be required that can support large numbers of devices with low latency and high reliability.

Energy efficiency is also a major concern for many robotics applications, particularly those requiring robots to operate for long periods without recharging. In light of this, robots are being developed with more efficient power systems, such as batteries and fuel cells, and energy harvesting technologies that can convert ambient energy2 into usable power.

2Ambient energy: Power sources in the environment such as radio waves, kinetic energy and solar power.

All of the aforementioned properties are crucial for the future evolution of robotics. In order to realize these features, advanced semiconductor technologies for sensing (sensors), moving (actuators), and thinking (processors) must be integrated into the robots of tomorrow.

The Importance of Semiconductor Technologies for Future Robotics

As robots become smarter, faster, and more adaptable to the environment, there is a greater need to integrate efficient and powerful components capable of sensing, actuating, and data processing. These components heavily rely on semiconductor technologies to help realize the potential of future robotics.

Processors: How Will the “Robots’ Brain” Spur the Evolution of Robotics?

Figure 2. Processors and other technologies which enable robots to “think”


One key semiconductor technology which will facilitate the development of robotics is the AI processor, a specialized semiconductor designed to accelerate the processing of AI algorithms. In robotics, AI processors will enable robots to make complex decisions and interact with their environment in real time. This technology will be crucial for autonomous robots that must make decisions based on real-time data from their sensors.

In addition to making decisions, robots in the years to come will utilize neuromorphic computing to become more human-like. Neuromorphic computing is an emerging semiconductor technology designed to mimic the structure and function of the human brain. This technology is particularly promising for robotics because it can enable robots to learn and adapt to new situations more quickly and effectively than traditional computing approaches. As it continues to advance, we can expect to see the development of robots that can perform increasingly complex tasks in a wider range of environments.

As robots are set to be used in even more industries going forward, they will need to use high-performance computing technologies such as GPUs and field-programmable gate arrays (FPGAs)3 to process and analyze large amounts of data in real-time. These technologies are particularly important for applications such as image and speech recognition, which require large amounts of computational power. In addition, edge computing4 will enable robots to operate in environments with limited connectivity or where real-time communication with a remote server is impossible.

3Field-programmable gate arrays (FGPA): A semiconductor device which can be configured to the desired application or functionality after it is manufactured.

4Edge computing: Allows devices in remote locations to process data at the “edge” of the network, either by the device or a local server. In robotics, edge computing enables data processing locally on the robot rather than in the cloud.

Enhanced communication capability will also be vital for future robotics. Therefore, it will be necessary to fully harness rapid 5G wireless technology to enable robots to operate and communicate in real time. This will make robots more responsive and capable of working together on various tasks in complex and dynamic environments.

Robotics often require a significant amount of power. As robots become more advanced, they will require more sophisticated power management technologies to ensure they can operate for an extended time. Technologies like energy harvesting, advanced batteries, and wireless charging will enable robots to operate without needing to be recharged or physically connected to an external power source.

Sensors: Will Future Robots be Able to Sense the World as We Do?

Advanced semiconductor technology will not only improve robots’ decision-making and communication capabilities, but also their ability to sense their environment and perform actions through sensors.

Figure 3. The various potential senses of future robots


CMOS image sensors (CIS) are already widely used in cameras and other imaging applications. In robotics, CIS will enable robots to “see” and interpret their environment. These low-power sensors are lightweight and capable of capturing high-quality images, making them ideal for robotics applications. SK hynix is developing time-of-flight5 (TOF) CIS technology, which can revolutionize how future robots perceive an object.

5Time-of-flight (TOF): The measurement of the time taken by an object, particle or wave to travel a distance through a medium. TOF sensors measure the time it takes for a light signal to travel from the sensor to an object and back.

Another type of sensor which can assist with environment perception is Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR). These sensors, which use lasers to create a 3D map of the surroundings, are already utilized in autonomous vehicles and will likely become increasingly important for robots. LiDAR sensors will enable robots to navigate complex environments and avoid obstacles in real-time.

Sensors can also be used for safety purposes as they can provide environmental-based warnings. For example, gas sensors are semiconductor-based sensors capable of detecting the presence of specific gases. In robotics, gas sensors will enable robots to detect and respond to changes in their environment, such as the presence of toxic gases or other hazardous materials. In addition to toxic gases, various chemical sensors could be applied to robots. Recently, fine dust sensor-equipped drones have been commercialized to monitor air pollution.

As well as detecting the environment, sensors also need to identify the robot’s movements around its surroundings. Micro-electromechanical systems (MEMS) sensors are miniature sensors that detect a wide range of physical parameters, including acceleration, rotation, and pressure. They are already used in various applications, including smartphones, wearables, and automotive systems. In robotics, MEMS sensors will enable robots to detect their orientation, movement, and other physical parameters.

Actuators: How Will Robots of the Future Move?

While sensors allow robots to perceive their environment, actuators allow them to interact with the world around them.

Figure 4. Types of actuators which enable robots to move


In contrast to the conventional robots of today, future robots will be equipped with a softer, more delicate, and more efficient actuation scheme. These soft robots, which are designed to mimic the movement and flexibility of natural organisms, will feature flexible artificial muscles which could be made from electroactive polymers (EAPs). EAPs, which change shape in response to an electrical stimulus, are the ideal material for these “muscles” as they can create lightweight, flexible actuators capable of performing a wide range of movements. In addition, shape memory alloys (SMAs) can change form in response to a temperature change or electrical current. They are already used in some robotic applications, such as grippers and actuators for space exploration, and are likely to become more common as robots evolve.

Piezoelectric actuators, which convert electrical energy directly into linear motion, are already commonly used in robotics but are likely to become more widespread in the future. These actuators are lightweight, small, and precise, making them ideal for applications such as micro-robotics and medical devices. Recent advances in high-performance piezoelectric thin film deposition technologies will further promote their adoption. Similarly, micro-electromechanical systems (MEMS) actuators are miniature actuators capable of performing precise movements. They are already used in a wide range of devices, including sensors and switches, and are likely to become more commonplace in robotics.

The Key to the Future of Robotics

Semiconductor technologies are clearly set to play a critical role in enabling the capabilities of future robotics sensors. By combining these technologies with advances in AI, actuators, sensors, and other areas, we can expect to see robots become more advanced, capable, and integrated into our daily lives. For SK hynix, it is well positioned to be a global leader in semiconductor products for future robotics thanks to its top-level resources for the design, manufacturing, and systemization of the components.


<Other articles from this series>

[DGIST Series] How the Quest for AI Led to Next-Generation Memory & Computing Processors

[DGIST Series] How Broadband Interface Circuits Are Evolving for Optimal Data Transfer

[DGIST Series] The Technologies Handling the Growing Data Demands in Healthcare

[DGIST Series] Silicon Photonics: Revolutionizing Data Transfers by Unleashing the Power of Light

[DGIST Series] AI-Powered Micro/Nanorobots to Revolutionize Medical Field

[DGIST Series] Sensor Interfaces and ADC Circuits: Bridging the Physical and Digital Worlds