Introduction to Automated Systems

History of Automatic Systems

Automation is believed to have started in the UK in 1620 with an invention by Holland born Cornelis Drebbel (Also famous for inventing the submarine and first two lensed microscope). This was a thermostat which monitored and controlled the temperature of a chicken incubator. This simple feedback control device can be used to explain automation and coding at its simplest.

Imagine being a chicken farmer in 1620, in order to keep your incubator at the correct temperature you would need to maintain the temperature of a coal powered oven. Cornelis Drebbel a famous inventor at the time designed what is now referred to as a feedback control system, which uses loops (more on those later) to remove the need for human monitoring and control.

Cornelis Drebbels automated oven. In order to burn a fire needs two things, fuel and oxygen, so the temperature of a coal fire can be controlled by changing the amount of oxygen it has available.

A mechanical system can be made where the air hole of an oven is covered by an apparatus connected to a floating cork, the higher the cork the less air enters the oven and the fire dies down cooling the oven. If the cork drops the air hole grows and the fire heats up.

Water does not expand enough when heated so Mercury is used. When the fire is too cold the Mercury takes up less room lowering the cork and the fire heats up. When the Mercury is hot it expands raising the cork and the fire cools.

Play the Game

Objective – Thermal Control. Rise and reduce the air flow to show the air flow of the oven heating up
Start the Game – Click anywhere on the left to start. Press the Green Flag to restart the Game
How to Control – Up & Down Cursor Keys to Control the Air Flow

Automated systems have come a long way since early feedback controls and sensors can now give much more data than simply on or off, higher or lower. We use autonomous robotics and Telerobotics (Semi-Autonomous) for an increasing number of activities on Earth but there is no area where they are more important than in remote inhospitable areas where humans cannot go. The further away from humans the robot is the more difficult it is to remote control it or change its program, so making the Robot able to “think” for itself incredibly important especially on other planets and in deep space.

Play the Game

Objective – Test the Velocity of the Earth around the Sun without burning up
Start the Game – Click anywhere on the left to start. Press the Green Flag to restart the Game
How to Control – Up & Down Cursor Keys to Control the Velocity

Sensors and Motors

The topics below will focus on the automated systems required to do different tasks from steering a robot to looking for life or maintaining human life. Introducing the motors and sensors used by robots early is a great idea and there are different educational equipment aimed at young learners. One such piece of kit is the Lego WeDo which contains a motor and two sensors, touch and distance. A lot of robots can be built with even a small number of input and output devices, a favorite is the WeDo Crocodile. Below is an interactive visual guide to the two sensors and the motor.

Play the Game

Objective – Test the Sensors, Motor & Track Distance
Start the Game – Click anywhere on the left to start. Press the Green Flag to restart the Game
How to Control – Left & Right Cursor Keys to Move
Tilt Sesnor – Up & Down Cursor Keys to Tilt on ‘Tilt Sensor Screen’
Distance Sensor – Left & Right Cursor Keys to Move and Track Distance on ‘Distance Sensor Screen’
Motor – Left Click to Turn Motor on ‘Motor Screen’

Further Materials, Resources & Information

Below you will find more resources and external websites related to this lesson.

  • Uoregon.edu (PDF Document) – Cornelis Drebbel’s Description of his Self-regulating Oven, the Regiment of Fire, and the Early History of Temperature
  • Code.org/learn – Try a one-hour tutorial designed for all ages in over 45 languages. Join millions of students and teachers in over 180 countries starting with an Hour of Code.
  • Scratch.mit.edu – Create stories, games, and animations. Try making your own loops and feedback systems.

Full STEAM Ahead – Space Exploration Education Grant

UK Space AgencyThis lesson has been produced as part of the Full STEAM Ahead Project with the UK Space Agency. We are one of eight organisations across the UK to be awarded to deliver and produce exciting new education outreach activities and projects. The UK Space Agency are delighted to be able to support these projects, which represent a diverse selection of cross-curricular activities that meet it’s education objectives in encouraging children to take up STEAM subjects, raise awareness of careers in space-related areas, and raise awareness of the UK’s exploration programme.


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