The robots really are coming.
In today’s top story (see “This Robot Could Transform Manufacturing”), I write about a clever new industrial robot developed by robotics pioneer and the founder of iRobot, Rodney Brooks. Unlike a conventional factory machine this new robot, Baxter, is safe to work alongside, highly adaptive, and amazingly easy to program. Just show it how to do a task and it’ll get on with it. Baxter really has the potential to shake up manufacturing by bringing automation to completely new areas of work.
But Rethink isn’t the only company working safer, more flexible, and more human-like industrial robots. Several established robots manufacturers and a few upstarts are developing similarly innovative products. The shift has been driven by rapid improvements in hardware and software in the last few years. And the result really does look like a robot revolution in the making. Here are the most interesting prototypes that could soon be challenging Baxter.
One of the world’s largest robotics companies, ABB, has developed its own two-armed humanoid robot capable of working alongside humans. Called FRIDA, the robot was developed as part of a collaborative European project called ROSETTA. While ABB says it has no plans to commercialize FRIDA, it’s easy to see how it could fulfill a similar role to Baxter. Below is a video of FRIDA in action.
Another Japanese company, Kawada Industries is working on a humanoid manufacturing robot called NEXTAGE. This robot is relatively lightweight and unlikely to hurt a human, but lacks the kind of sophisticated safety features seen in Baxter. The video below shows three NEXTAGE robots working together on a simple task.
Motoman’s SDA-Series Dual Arm Robots
Motoman, a subsidiary of the Japanese giant Yaskawa Electric Corporation, has been developing several two-armed robots capable of performing simple work for the past few years. These robots also lack the safety and computer vision systems features found in Baxter, but they are dexterous and capable of working in human environments. Here’s a video showing one of the robot packing cardboard boxes at a Japanese trade show.
Meka Robotics M1
The company behind this robot was founded by two students from MIT, Aaron Edsinger and Jeff Weber. Its M1 Mobile Manipulator is a research tool rather than an industrial one. But it has some important and useful features, such as force control, and two dexterous humanoid hands. Meka Robotics also involved with an interesting company, Redwood Robotics, in collaboration Willow Garage and SRI International. Redwood is currently in stealth mode, but seems likely working on something similar to Rethink. Notably, Willow Garage makes the open source robot operating system (ROS) that is used in Baxter
And, finally, in case you missed it, here’s the video we made showing Rethink’s robot, Baxter, in action.
Copyright Technology Review 2012.