AI News, Heartland Robotics Developing $5k 'PC of Robots'?

Heartland Robotics Developing $5k 'PC of Robots'?

With the latest round of funding (which involves as bunch of investors being shown around and told what the plan is), some new information has leaked out from Heartland, and it’s tantalizing: Visitors to Heartland describe a robot that looks like a human from the waist up, with a torso;

He’s interested in encouraging a community of software developers to create applications that would teach the robot to do tasks such as using its camera to recognize a defective widget and pulling it off the conveyor belt.” Thinking about robots as hardware that runs apps is not unique to Heartland, but the deciding factor could be the target price point: a shockingly low $5000.

And if they can set the robot up on an assembly line (which seems to be its general target market), it could very rapidly start making things more efficient for even small businesses, especially if the robot is as easy to program as they’re trying to make it.

How Rethink Robotics Built Its New Baxter Robot Worker

In the center of an otherwise unremarkable office stand six large robotic torsos mounted on pedestals and positioned along a bench that’s covered with piles of plastic widgets.


One robot methodically moves widget after widget onto a conveyor belt, the animated face on its LCD screen displaying an expression of quiet concentration.

The task is mundane, but the robot is not: This is Baxter, the culmination of nearly five years of secretive development, based on the vision of Rodney Brooks, possibly the world’s most celebrated roboticist.

Now founder, chairman, and CTO of Rethink Robotics, the company that built Baxter, Brooks has his sights set characteristically high: to unleash a revolution in manufacturing with a friendly faced factory robot.


Rethink’s robot was one of the best-kept secrets in robotics, but that secret is about to be revealed with the exclusive demonstration we’re getting today in preparation for Baxter’s first shipments this month.


With two arms, each with seven axes of motion—or degrees of freedom, in robotic parlance—and a reach similar to that of a human, Baxter is designed to take over those simple, dumb, mindless tasks that humans hate to perform because they’re so, well, robotic.

Whereas traditional industrial robots perform one specific task with superhuman speed and precision, Baxter is neither particularly fast nor particularly precise.

But it excels at just about any job that involves picking stuff up and putting it down somewhere else while simultaneously adapting to changes in its environment, like a misplaced part or a conveyor belt that suddenly changes speed.


Baxter’s limited speed and lower weight—about 75 kilograms (165 pounds), or as much as an average adult man—mean that it can operate right alongside human workers.

Once it’s wheeled into place and plugged into an ordinary power outlet, a person with no robotics experience can program a new task simply by moving Baxter’s arms around and following prompts on its user-friendly interface (which doubles as the robot’s face).

And while a traditional two-armed robot, including sensors and programming, will typically set you back hundreds of thousands of dollars, Baxter costs just $22 000.

After introducing us to Baxter, Brooks has us follow him through the maze of beige cubicles, test stands, and scattered piles of robot parts that make up Rethink’s Boston headquarters, which is unusually quiet today.

One framed picture shows Genghis, a six-legged robot he built at MIT in the late 1980s, which could crawl and climb over obstacles with a remarkable, insect-like gait.

The start-up broke ground in two distinct areas: its Roomba vacuum cleaning robot, which became a runaway hit in the consumer market, and its PackBot military robot, used in Iraq and Afghanistan to scout for improvised explosive devices.

“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.

From the beginning, says David “DMX” Lewis, Rethink’s senior mechanical engineer and one of its earliest employees, “the vision was a two-armed robot and a head, because Rod had envisioned something that can go in and sit next to a person on the assembly line and help them out.” But they decided to start with a simple design and build up from there.

Next came an arm with six degrees of freedom, similar to a popular robot arm of the 1980s called PUMA (programmable universal machine for assembly).

After much internal debate, Rethink’s engineers decided that it needed a seventh degree of freedom, to better approximate the range of motion of a human arm.

(At one point they attempted to build the entire arm, including the gear systems, out of plastic, but that didn’t pan out.) And by working closely with local manufacturers, they were able to get the parts they needed more cheaply and without compromising quality.

Rethink used this design-for-manufacturing approach for as many parts as possible, eventually procuring 75 percent of them in the United States—a fact that Baxter advertises with a big “Made in U.S.A.” sign stamped on its back.


For example, backlash in the gears—the slack in teeth couplings that may cause motion loss and vibrations—can be modeled and then adjusted on the software side so that the arms move smoothly.

“You don’t need the robot to be able to go somewhere within 0.01-millimeter accuracy in order to pick something up,” she says, “because the robot is going to see it, get a fix on it, and then pick it up.” 


The series elastic actuators also act as filters that help reduce friction and backlash in low-cost gearboxes, and they turn into shock absorbers if the robot ever accidentally whacks something, protecting both the robot and whatever or whomever it came in contact with.

Lewis, the mechanical engineer, explains that having good force control enables Baxter to do things like pick up parts or push buttons without needing a degree of position control that would have required more expensive components.

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.


Programming a traditional robot requires writing code or running it through its paces by pushing buttons on a handheld control box called a teach pendant.

And that’s what Rethink is offering: future potential, embodied in the promise of frequent software upgrades that will give Baxter the ability to perform entirely new tasks.

It currently runs Linux and ROS (short for robot operating system), a software platform that’s becoming increasingly popular within the robotics community.

Our price point allows you to just go ahead and try it and see what happens.” The company is confidently expecting more orders than it can fill after it starts shipping robots this month.

They might not cost as little as Baxter, but they will likely be able to perform high-precision tasks that Baxter can’t do, like assembling electronics boards, another potentially huge market for robotic automation.

They may shift jobs away from the developing world if U.S. and European manufacturers bring production back home, Brooks says, but the robots are not designed to replace workers.

Safer Robots Will Improve Manufacturing

R2, which has only a torso, sophisticated arms and fingers, and a head full of sensors, was the result of a joint effort by NASA and General Motors to create a robot that could operate safely alongside humans.

Although robots have aided manufacturing for decades, they’ve tended to be bulky systems that require precise setup to do large-scale, repetitious tasks such as welding or painting a car door.

Though the partnership does not include the R2 project, it represents another step in developing robots that can assist with repetitious or physically stressful assembly-line tasks without posing a safety risk.

“In manufacturing facilities, robots are basically in cages like wild animals … so you can’t get in there and get hurt,” says David Bourne, a professor at Carnegie Mellon who works on robotic manufacturing.

[It] makes the robot able to safely interact with people,” says Rodney Brooks, a cofounder of iRobot and founder of Heartland Robotics, which is developing inexpensive, adaptable manufacturing robots and has licensed the series elastic actuator.

In addition to its force-sensing joints, R2 is covered in soft material in case of accidental collisions, and its head is chock-full of cameras—including an infrared camera for depth sensing—so it can keep track of its human colleagues.

The new generation of robots would not replace these cumbersome giants, but do smaller, more sophisticated tasks, such as handling the screws, handles, and airbag and blind-spot warning sensors that go into the car doors.

5 Robot Trends to Watch for in 2016

Will this year mark the first drone delivery, or the first time you encounter a robot at work or in your home?

China’s robot revolution The world’s largest economy has embarked on an audacious effort to fill its factories with advanced manufacturing robots.

The government of China hopes this will help the country retain its vast manufacturing industry as workers’ wages rise, and manufacturing becomes more efficient and technologically advanced around the world (see “China Wants to Replace Millions of Workers with Robots”).

Deep learning, which uses large simulated neural networks, has already proven indispensable for training robots to understand the contents of images, video, and audio.

What’s more, thanks to clever approaches for adapting information to different systems, even two completely different robots could teach each other how to recognize a particular object or perform a new task (see “Robots Can Now Teach Each Other New Tricks”).

With hardware becoming cheaper and software becoming more capable, it isn’t hard to see why some believe the time is right for robotic home companions and helpers (see “Personal Robots: Artificial Friends with Limited Benefits”).

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration released regulations for registering drones at the end of 2015, and it is testing technology that could help automate air traffic control for automated vehicles (see “FAA Will Test Drones’ Ability to Steer Themselves Out of Trouble”).

While you might not see the skies filled with drones immediately, expect increasingly smart and autonomous drones to be tested in many industries, especially ones where automated surveillance and inspection is useful (see “A Drone with a Sense of Direction,” “New Boss on Construction Site Is a Drone,” and “This Surveillance Drone Never Needs to Land”).