Rod Brooks and Rethink Reveal an Industrial Robot for the Masses

9/18/12Follow @gthuang

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finds the part (or doesn’t find it, as it were). If you get in the way of the arm—Brooks put his head in its path to demonstrate—the arm stops abruptly. Its control system has a force field that prevents the robot from bumping into objects around it, including itself. And its joints are soft and springy: they are powered by what are called series elastic actuators, a technology licensed from MIT, so they have some give to them, instead of being rigid (and potentially dangerous) like traditional industrial robots.

And that’s the big idea here: Baxter is a new breed of industrial robot that’s meant to be accessible to the masses. A factory worker could set up the robot to pick parts out of a box, or place them into a box, or take them off an assembly line. The robot is designed to work next to a person; while the machine unloads a box or moves things around that need moving, the person can focus on tasks better suited for humans: prioritizing, making decisions, organizing, assembling.

The robot is supposed to be easy-to-use for a production-level factory worker. It doesn’t come with an IT/robotics geek or MIT PhD included, as Brooks puts it. It has to be self-contained. In fact the robot is notable for a number of things it doesn’t try to do. It doesn’t connect to a network or Wi-Fi (factories and plants don’t necessarily have connectivity). It doesn’t have speech recognition (factory floors are noisy) or a touchscreen (workers wear gloves). It doesn’t move around the room by itself. And it doesn’t require any software programming by its users. “Our whole thing is about lowering the barrier to entry,” Brooks says. “We’re not asking for anything except a 110 [volt] outlet.”

Rethink RoboticsBut it is designed to be a robotics platform. Brooks and his team are hoping to cultivate an ecosystem of robotic app developers. Imagine apps for different factory tasks, or eventually, all kinds of other things—more on that below. (Bartending, anyone? Wouldn’t a row of Baxters making drinks be better than waiting 10 minutes in a crowd every time you order a beer?)

Indeed, it’s tempting to call Baxter the “iPhone of robotics,” or some such. “I’d like to say it’s the Apple IIe,” Brooks jokes. “There’s a long way to go. But we’ve broken away from the mainframe, which is the current industrial robot.”

There’s no question this whole approach could take a while to catch on in industry. But here’s the plan: Rethink is going after small and medium-size manufacturers—say, businesses or divisions with 10 production workers—to be its initial customers. The first applications will be for materials handling. But subsequent software upgrades will enable the robot to … Next Page »

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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    There is a growing demand for accessible
    robots—robots that are easy to program, use, and buy. Rethink is
    well positioned to address this. Other
    companies, such as Robai Technologies and Universal Robots are making advances
    in this area as well.