September 18, 2012
Rethink Robotics Unveils Baxter
|Rodney Brooks with Baxter - Image Source: New York Times|
|At Rethink Robotics (formerly Heartland Robotics) Rodney Brooks's wants to spark a factory revolution with a low-cost, user-friendly robot named Baxter. The company has been developing robots that can mingle safely with humans in stealth mode for years now and has finally unveiled its creation. Baxter, which goes on sale for $22,000 in October, is a significant bet that robots in the future will work directly with humans.|
Rethink Robotics with US $62 million in funding from top-tier investors such as Bezos Expeditions and Charles River Ventures, Rethink Robotics has been the subject of a great deal of interest and speculation since its founding in 2008. Like others who track robotics, we’d heard the rumors: Rethink was focusing on manufacturing; its robots would be so inexpensive every factory would be able to afford one; the robots would help make workers more efficient and American factories competitive again.
But nobody knew exactly what the company was up to—or if they did, they weren’t talking. Rethink’s robot was one of the best-kept secrets in robotics, but that secret is about to be revealed in preparation for Baxter’s first shipments this month.
Baxter is the first of a new generation of smarter, more compliant industrial robots. Conventional industrial robots are expensive to program, incapable of handling even small deviations in their environment, and are so dangerous that they have to be physically separated from human workers with cages. Even as robotics have become commonplace in the automotive and many other industries, they remain impractical in many other types of manufacturing, and their prices have put them out of reach of small businesses and smaller capitalized ventures.
Baxter, can be programmed more easily than a your PVR and can respond to events like knocked-over parts or when a person gets in its path of operation.
According to Brooks, the amount of manufacturing in the United States has declined dramatically over the last few decades, in part because workers in other parts of the world will perform simple and menial jobs for far less. But robots like Baxter could wipe out that advantage by taking over such tasks, making it once again possible for many industries to competitively manufacture their products in the United States and other developed countries.
Brooks’s vision for Rethink can be traced back to the time he spent in China supervising the mass production ramp up of iRobot's Roomba.
“I realized that [outsourcing manufacturing to China] wasn’t sustainable, because once the cost of Chinese labor starts to go up, the appeal of doing a product there starts to go away,” he says. He concluded that a fairly simple robot could do lots of those tasks, like basic material handling, packing and unpacking boxes, and polishing and grinding. Brooks’s second realization was that the same Moore's Law exponential advances in processors and sensors that were making PCs and smartphones better and cheaper would benefit robots, as well.
One of Baxter’s key features is compliance. A robot is said to be compliant when it’s not completely rigid and when it can sense and control the forces it applies to things. “If you want a robot that’s going to deal with an unstructured environment, it can’t be stiff,” says Matthew Williamson, Rethink’s director of technology development. “You need compliance.”
This idea of compliance is embodied, as it were, in Baxter’s arms, which contain a mechanism called a series elastic actuator. The concept was invented and patented in the mid-1990s by then–MIT researchers Gill Pratt (now a program manager at the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency - DARPA) and Williamson. As Williamson explains, in a traditional actuator a motor drives a gearbox, which in turn drives a joint—say, the elbow of a robot arm. The motor, gearbox, and joint are rigidly attached to one another. What you get is speed and precision, which are great for a welding robot at a car plant but not for a robot that will operate around humans. If you try to hold the elbow when it’s turning, for example, a traditional robot won’t feel your hand and so will just keep moving.
As sophisticated as Baxter’s hardware is, the “real breakthrough,” according to Brooks, is “the way you program the robot.” Using the word program to describe how you teach Baxter new tasks is perhaps overcomplicating things: It isn’t so much programmed as it is simply shown what to do.
Rethink is planning to release a software development kit, or SDK, next year that will let others delve into Baxter’s guts and modify its capabilities. There will also be a variety of third-party grippers for handling parts with different shapes. What’s more, Baxter is relying on open platforms. It currently runs Linux and ROS, a software platform that’s becoming increasingly popular within the robotics community. Rethink is now looking for people to develop a ROS-compatible SDK and is considering eventually supporting a completely open-source framework for Baxter.
At $22,000, Baxter is priced low enough to be price-competitive with low-skill labour, but how industry responds will have to be seen.
"I don't know exactly where it's going to go," says Brooks. "But I know it's going to be a revolution."
SOURCE IEEE Spectrum
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