Heartland Robotics Raises $20M More to Develop Helper Robots for Manufacturing

11/30/10Follow @gthuang

Make no mistake—this is Boston’s big bet on the future of robotics.

Cambridge, MA-based Heartland Robotics is announcing today it has raised $20 million in Series B financing led by new investor Highland Capital Partners. New investor Sigma Partners also participated, as did existing investors Charles River Ventures and Bezos Expeditions. All in all, it’s a vote of confidence by the Boston-area venture community in one of its homegrown companies—even as the region faces increasing competition in robotics from Google and other Silicon Valley companies.

More specifically, the new money and support will help Heartland Robotics “finalize product development” and bring its “innovative line of robots to market,” said Heartland CEO Scott Eckert, in a statement.

The company is still being cagey about giving any details on its technology or specific applications. The basic idea, it says, is to make U.S. manufacturing more productive and efficient by “introducing a new generation of robots” into “places that have not been automated before.” In a statement, Heartland founder and chief technology officer Rodney Brooks said the firm’s robots will be “intuitive to use, intelligent and highly flexible. They’ll be easy to buy, train, and deploy and will be unbelievably inexpensive.”

That last bit is key—the robots have to be really cheap for the economics to work out, and for Heartland to reach its goal of keeping American manufacturing jobs from migrating to low-cost regions. That would seem to preclude robots that have human-like dexterity, which was the focus of research Brooks conducted in recent years at MIT involving robotic arms and hands that can manipulate tools and everyday objects using tactile sensors and computer vision. But the robots could have some dexterity—enough to load and unload equipment parts, say, or perform assembly-line tasks. And they probably could be mobile, like iRobot’s Roomba, and could help move items around the workplace, like Kiva Systems’ warehouse helper robots, for example.

Heartland Robotics previously raised a $7 million Series A-1 round from Charles River Ventures and Bezos Expeditions, the Seattle-based investment firm of Amazon.com founder and CEO Jeff Bezos, in addition to an initial $5 million A round. Heartland was founded in 2008 by Brooks, the co-founder of iRobot (NASDAQ: IRBT) and former director of MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. Brooks retired from MIT last summer to spend more time on his new company.

Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Deputy Editor, National IT Editor, and the Editor of Xconomy Boston. You can e-mail him at gthuang@xconomy.com or call him at 617-252-7323. Follow @gthuang

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