August 12, 2013
Roomba Inventor Praised By MIT For Robotics Research
Michael Harper for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online
Rodney Brooks first made a name for himself in the field of robotics in the 1990s when the first Roomba autonomous vacuum cleaner rolled onto American carpets. Brooks, a professor emeritus at MIT, co-founded iRobot, the company which built the Roomba and other helpful robots.
Last September Brooks unveiled his latest creation, Baxter, a two-armed bot with an LCD face meant to be easily programmed and work alongside humans in assembly lines and other factory positions.
Now the University where Brooks got his start is praising his work, noting that hundreds of Baxter robots have been sold all over the world. Other MIT publications, such as the MIT Technology Review, have also been quick to praise Brooks and Rethink Robotics, the company which sells the Baxter robot.
“Baxter changes its movements to accommodate the world. That’s a revolution in robots for manufacturing by itself,” said Brooks in a statement to MIT’s recent praise of his newest product. “And the fact that it’s aware of people and safe to be around people is another revolution in the manufacturing environment.”
Baxter, a robot that sells for $25,000, costs much less than hiring a new factory employee, yet the unit can perform many of the same duties. It’s arms and hands can be programmed to do many repetitive tasks. As such, the robot can be used to build anything from cars to blue jeans or anything else its owners ask of it. Baxter is also capable of understanding when a human is nearby, allowing it to work easily in a team with humans or work quietly by itself at night.
Baxter’s LCD screen face acts as an interface, allowing its human counterparts to know if the robot understood the directions it was given. Sensors on the robot’s head are capable of seeing the world around it and help it better understand what it’s to be doing with its hands. Sensors in its arms and hands also help Baxter to perform delicate tasks without crushing product or equipment. These sensors are also handy safety precautions, should Baxter and a human have to interact physically at some point in the day.
In an interview with MIT, Brooks says he created Baxter as a way for American factories to compete globally with the low-cost labor found overseas. After five years of prototyping different styles of robots, Brooks landed upon Baxter in 2008, left MIT and founded Rethink Robotics.
The decision to move away from the MIT setting and work from home had its challenges. Also, in order to build a robot to work in a factory, some components had to be abandoned and/or replaced. For example, Baxter was made not be voice controlled because factories are notoriously noisy places. Also, the robot doesn't operate via touch screen because workers are often wearing gloves.
“It’s all this obvious little stuff that, as an academic, doesn’t register when you’re starting to commercialize something like this. So you have to go into the field to find it out,” said Brooks.
Just as Baxter is built to help American factories compete, it’s also built with components that were made in America; Rethink uses sensors that originated in Boston’s MIT. Not only does Rethink source components from the university, it hires many of its employees from MIT as well.
“You can’t have a robotics company in Boston without employing people from MIT,” says Brooks.
Brooks now says Rethink may build a version of Baxter that can be used to help researchers complete their experiments.
Image Below: Baxter the robot developed by Rodney Brooks. Credit: Rethink Robotics