Most robots work in factories in cages or behind glass walls, separated from people for safety reasons. But Boston-based start-up Rethink Robotics believes it's time to change that. The company created Baxter to help bring their new vision for robots and humans working together to life.
Rethink Robotics' home page currently features a great picture of Baxter. He's no Data or C3PO, of course, but the almost curious expression in the eyes on his display screen and those bright red metal limbs make him seem almost personable. And that's the company's intention.
Baxter is designed to work alongside humans. Because of this, the robot features lots of safety controls and mechanisms. Put your hand (or head) in the path of Baxter's large arms, and you'll feel the smallest of nudges. That's because the arm is equipped to sense obstacles and react appropriately to them.
A non-technical worker can train Baxter to do a job merely by physically moving its parts. To teach the robot to pick up an object and move it, its instructor takes hold of its arms, moves it, and makes it grasp the item. Baxter comes with a collection of behaviors and simple tasks that it already “knows” – for instance, it understands that it can't move and release an object from its hand unless it's actually holding the item to begin with.
Baxter is destined for repetitive assembly line work – perhaps the most boring of tasks. Dr. Rodney A. Brooks, Rethink's founder, estimates that Baxter can perform this kind of work at a cost to a company of perhaps four dollars an hour. You would think that the robot would end up replacing low-paid human workers at that price. But an interesting thing has happened in Rethink's tests of Baxter at small manufacturing firms around the U.S. In a sense, the robot did replace the lower-level workers – but instead of getting laid off, those workers got promoted to jobs that required higher-level skills.
Here's even better news: Baxter fit in comfortably with its new co-workers. According to Chris Budnick, president of one of the companies that tested the new robot, “Our folks loved it and they felt very comfortable with it. Even the older folks didn't perceive it as a threat.”
But what may be most exciting to businesses and robotics enthusiasts alike is Baxter's “open” nature – in this case, “open” as in “open source.” As the New York Times explains, “Rethink's strategy calls for the robot to double as a 'platform,' a computerized system that other developers can add both hardware devices and software applications for particular purposes...[making] it possible for independent developers to extend the system in directions that Rethink hasn't considered, much in the same way the original Apple II had slots for additional peripheral cards.”
Baxter is expected to be available in October, and comes with a $22,000 price tag. That's rather pricey for just one person, but probably a quite sensible and justifiable cost for the small manufacturing companies who make up Baxter's target market. Rethink Robotics plans to put out a Software Development Kit (SDK) for the robot in 2013.
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