Heartland Robotics Developing $5k 'PC of Robots'?

Heartland Robotics is working on something new, and we have a few guesses as to what it might be

2 min read
Heartland Robotics Developing $5k 'PC of Robots'?

Heartland Robotics is a company headed by legendary iRobot co-founder Rodney Brooks. It’s been in ’stealth mode’ since its founding in 2008, meaning that they’re working on something cool enough to have raised some $32 million in funding, but they’re not ready to tell the world about it yet.

With the latest round of funding (which involves as bunch of investors being shown around and told what the plan is), some new information has leaked out from Heartland, and it’s tantalizing:

Visitors to Heartland describe a robot that looks like a human from the waist up, with a torso; either one or two arms with grippers; and a camera where you might expect the head to be. The robot is on a rolling base rather than legs; it can be moved around but doesn’t move autonomously. The arm and gripper can be quickly trained to do a repetitive task just by moving them, no software code required.

It’s possible that this robot is based in part on MIT’s Obrero platform, pictured above. There’s more:

“Brooks apparently likens Heartland’s robot, which is intended to perform assembly and packaging tasks that low-wage factory workers do today, to Apple’s iPhone. He’s interested in encouraging a community of software developers to create applications that would teach the robot to do tasks such as using its camera to recognize a defective widget and pulling it off the conveyor belt.”

Thinking about robots as hardware that runs apps is not unique to Heartland, but the deciding factor could be the target price point: a shockingly low $5000. At that level, it’s easy for businesses to justify purchasing a robot just to try it out, since the risk is so small. And if they can set the robot up on an assembly line (which seems to be its general target market), it could very rapidly start making things more efficient for even small businesses, especially if the robot is as easy to program as they’re trying to make it.

Even if it takes three of these robots to do the job of one human, you’re still talking about a very positive investment. Heck, even if you needed ten of them, a $5k a pop they’d probably pay for themselves in less than a year when you consider the overhead that humans require, and they’d work 24/7 to boot.

For a long (long long LONG) time, the robotics industry has been looking for its PC, the one killer platform or application that has the potential to make robots simple, cheap, reliable, and useful. It hasn’t turned out to be vacuums, but it might just be a cheap robot worker from Heartland.

Stay tuned.

[ Heartland Robotics ] via [ ] and [ NBF ]

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Robot with threads near a fallen branch

RoMan, the Army Research Laboratory's robotic manipulator, considers the best way to grasp and move a tree branch at the Adelphi Laboratory Center, in Maryland.

Evan Ackerman

This article is part of our special report on AI, “The Great AI Reckoning.

"I should probably not be standing this close," I think to myself, as the robot slowly approaches a large tree branch on the floor in front of me. It's not the size of the branch that makes me nervous—it's that the robot is operating autonomously, and that while I know what it's supposed to do, I'm not entirely sure what it will do. If everything works the way the roboticists at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory (ARL) in Adelphi, Md., expect, the robot will identify the branch, grasp it, and drag it out of the way. These folks know what they're doing, but I've spent enough time around robots that I take a small step backwards anyway.

The robot, named RoMan, for Robotic Manipulator, is about the size of a large lawn mower, with a tracked base that helps it handle most kinds of terrain. At the front, it has a squat torso equipped with cameras and depth sensors, as well as a pair of arms that were harvested from a prototype disaster-response robot originally developed at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory for a DARPA robotics competition. RoMan's job today is roadway clearing, a multistep task that ARL wants the robot to complete as autonomously as possible. Instead of instructing the robot to grasp specific objects in specific ways and move them to specific places, the operators tell RoMan to "go clear a path." It's then up to the robot to make all the decisions necessary to achieve that objective.

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