Meet Baxter, the huggable industrial robot

At MIT's EmTech conference, Rethink Robotics demonstrates its friendly solution to industrial manufacturing robotics problems.

MIT kicked off this year's EmTech conference Wednesday with a presentation in which Rodney Brooks, the founder, chairman and CTO of Rethink Robotics, welcomed attendees to an interactive hug from its safe manufacturing robot called Baxter.

Standing roughly three feet in height, Baxter is equipped with two smart, independent robotic arms and a tablet-like screen displaying human-like eyes. An easily programmable robot, Brooks says Baxter is a solution to significant barriers preventing industrial robots from large-scale adoption in the manufacturing world: complexity and safety.

With Baxter, whose programmable robotic arms can be set to hug a human being without crushing him or her to death, Brooks says Rethink Robotics is looking to foster broader innovation in a manufacturing sector that has fallen behind technologically.

In the auto industry, for example, industrial robots and human manufacturers are completely segregated, Brooks says. Robots are the sole method of assembling the body of the vehicles, and final assembly is undertaken entirely by humans. This is because manufacturing robots are traditionally too complex to program and don't work well side-by-side with humans. Safety for human workers, who would be trying to work alongside massive, unforgiving automated machines, is an obvious concern.

Robot

Baxter attempts to solve these problems by simplifying the programmability so that even those completely untrained in robotics can control them. Cameras and depth sensors give the robot an image to remember objects it is instructed to interact with. A human then has to only once move the robot's arm in the motion it will need to make repeatedly. For a demonstration shown at the event, the robot's right arm was moved down to the object, its clamps closed to secure it, and the arm moved toward a bin where it would drop the object. Once that has been done, the robot remembers where it can find the same object, how to recognize it, and where to move it every time it arrives on a conveyor belt. The same process was then applied to Baxter's left arm, only with a different object.

To test it, an alternating series of the two different objects was put on the conveyor belt. Baxter picked up each with the correct arm dropped them in the correct places.

The demonstration also showed how Baxter interacts with nearby humans. While the robot was lifting an object, the demonstrator leaned forward into the path the robotic arm was programmed to move once it picked up the object. Baxter's sensors recognized the person and stopped and waited for her to move out of the way before completing the process.

Integration was another factor considered in the development of Baxter, Brooks says. Companies looking to install the robots need not also invest in a new fleet of highly trained engineers or employees. Comparing the robot's programmability to the ease of use of a smartphone, Brooks says a company could have a Baxter robot operational within an hour after bringing it into a factory.

The industrial robot revolution

When applied to a large industrial manufacturing project, this kind of recognition and programmability has the potential to be revolutionary. Brooks cited the production of Apple's iPad, which has been the subject of much controversy since news reports have uncovered the long, tedious processes Chinese factory workers are subjected to during production.

An ABC Nightline report earlier this year found that every iPad passes through the hands of 325 people in the production process. With the recent addition of a new model of iPad, this number could soon grow substantially. The introduction of a safe, easily managed manufacturing robot could not only reduce the risk of errors in production, but could also improve the working conditions and overall quality of life for Foxconn factory workers.

The transition is already beginning to take place. According to the New York Times, Foxconn plans to install more than 1 million industrial robots in its factories in the coming years. Although Foxconn employees will undoubtedly be benefactors of this transition, company chairman Terry Gou is looking forward to it as well.

"As human beings are also animals, to manage 1 million animals gives me a headache," Gou said earlier this year, according to the Xinhua news agency.

Colin Neagle covers emerging technologies, privacy and enterprise mobility for Network World. Follow him on Twitter https://twitter.com/#!/ntwrkwrldneagle and keep up with the Microsoft, Cisco and Open Source community blogs. Colin's email address is cneagle@nww.com.

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