Industrial robots might be on the verge of undergoing a similar evolution as personal computers did over the last 15 years -- becoming at once highly intuitive to use, while dropping dramatically in price.
This change won't happen overnight. But if a company called Heartland Robotics can achieve its vision of the "iPhone robot" for only $5,000, industrial robotics will find wider application for industries and tasks that have been thus far untouched by automation.
Heartland Robotics is a company headed by Rodney Brooks, one of the leading science minds in the development of computer vision, mobile robots, humanoid robots, artificial intelligence and artificial life. A longtime MIT professor, Brooks co-founded iRobot, a developer of robot systems for defense and consumer applications in 1990, then announced his intention to quit his professorship in 1998 to start a new company.
Brooks' concept is to bring a new class of intelligent, dexterous robots to industrial workplaces in order to boost productivity and revitalize U.S. manufacturing. So far, the company has been conspicuously silent. It is backed by Charles River Ventures and Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos and for the last several months has been raising venture capital, including a $20 million haul in early December.
While no one from Heartland Robotics has spoken publicly about their new technology, it is believed that Brooks may be building off of a humanoid grasping arm called the Obrero developed at MIT. In a presentation back in 2009 at Maker Faire, a technology show, Brooks suggested the next key bridge to be crossed in robotic technology would be through visual and audio recognition, then marrying those innovations to improvements in dexterity.
What little has been publicly shared from Heartland Robotics is to provide robots that can perform assembly and packaging tasks that low-wage factory workers do today. Brooks has encouraged a community of software developers to create applications that are inherently intuitive -- like Apple's iPhone -- that would teach the robot to do tasks such as using its camera to recognize a defective part and remove it off a moving conveyor belt.
Even more remarkable is Heartland Robotics is aiming to set a $5,000 price point, which would be make it easily affordable to small- and medium-sized manufacturers and reduce the potential risk in investment.
According to several reports, based off visitors that have toured the Heartland Robotics facility in Cambridge, Mass., the robot is designed similarly to a human from the waist up, with a torso, two arms with grippers; it features a camera in the head area. The system, however, isn't autonomous in its movement; it sits on a rolling base and must be positioned for its tasks.
To bring Brooks' vision to reality, Heartland Robotics recently brought in a new CEO, Scott Eckert, formerly of Dell and Motion Computing.
Just as PCs revolutionized the workplace, providing infinite access to information, a similar breakthrough era might be on tap for manufacturers. And it might be more affordable than anyone ever imagined.