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Redwood Robotics Brings Big Names to Next Gen Robot Arms

A joint venture between Meka Robotics, Willow Garage, and SRI International wants to create a robot arm that does for robotics what the Apple II did for computers

2 min read
Redwood Robotics Brings Big Names to Next Gen Robot Arms

Last Thursday, tech website Xconomy hosted a forum on "The Future of Robotics in Silicon Valley and Beyond." We were there, of course, and so were a lot of other famous robotics people, including Aaron Edsinger of Meka Robotics, who had an announcement to make: an entirely new company called Redwood Robotics, a joint venture between Meka Robotics, Willow Garage, and SRI International.

While Redwood has apparently been in the works for about a year, Edsinger wasn't ready to commit to much as far as what the new company will actually be working on. Here's what we know:

  • Redwood will be building the "next generation arm" for robots. Edsinger wants to create an arm that does for robotics what the Apple II did for computers: get the hardware out of factories and into homes. In other words, something that's simple to program, inexpensive, and safe to operate alongside people.

  • Specifically, they'll be working on a "new type of device" with "new types of interfaces," providing "product solutions for integrators, developers, and enterprise customers" who (we'll have to assume) will then sell the arms with software or firmware to end users.

  • Long term, Redwood wants to be the "arm merchant for emerging personal and service robot markets." So, when you buy your robot butler in a few years, it'll be from some company that isn't Redwood, but Redwood hopes it will supply that robot's arms.

Redwood Robotics isn't the only company that's working on low-cost robot arms. The other big name in this space is Heartland Robotics, a stealthy venture-backed startup founded by Rodney Brooks. Last we heard (December 2010), Heartland was working on a human-safe robot for industrial assembly and packaging that reportedly would cost less than US $5,000:

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.

We don't know a heck of a lot about either of these companies, but on the face of it, there seem to be two major differences. First, Redwood isn't offering a platform to the end user: they don't seem interested in providing any additional hardware (like a vision system) or even much in the way of software. Redwood just wants to sell arms to people, whereas Heartland is looking to sell an entire functional robot as a drop-in replacement for assembly line workers.

Second, Heartland is targeting industrial markets, while Redwood seems to be focused on personal and service robotics. This could be because Redwood doesn't want to get in the way of a company with $32 million in venture backing and a bunch of big names on board, or it could reflect a fundamental difference in the hardware, or business model, or both. In any case, we'll just have to wait and see with these two, and when we know more, you'll be the first (or, well, second) to hear about it.

[ Redwood Robotics ] via [ Xconomy ] and [ Hizook ]

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The Bionic-Hand Arms Race

The prosthetics industry is too focused on high-tech limbs that are complicated, costly, and often impractical

12 min read
A photograph of a young woman with brown eyes and neck length hair dyed rose gold sits at a white table. In one hand she holds a carbon fiber robotic arm and hand. Her other arm ends near her elbow. Her short sleeve shirt has a pattern on it of illustrated hands.

The author, Britt Young, holding her Ottobock bebionic bionic arm.

Gabriela Hasbun. Makeup: Maria Nguyen for MAC cosmetics; Hair: Joan Laqui for Living Proof

In Jules Verne’s 1865 novel From the Earth to the Moon, members of the fictitious Baltimore Gun Club, all disabled Civil War veterans, restlessly search for a new enemy to conquer. They had spent the war innovating new, deadlier weaponry. By the war’s end, with “not quite one arm between four persons, and exactly two legs between six,” these self-taught amputee-weaponsmiths decide to repurpose their skills toward a new projectile: a rocket ship.

The story of the Baltimore Gun Club propelling themselves to the moon is about the extraordinary masculine power of the veteran, who doesn’t simply “overcome” his disability; he derives power and ambition from it. Their “crutches, wooden legs, artificial arms, steel hooks, caoutchouc [rubber] jaws, silver craniums [and] platinum noses” don’t play leading roles in their personalities—they are merely tools on their bodies. These piecemeal men are unlikely crusaders of invention with an even more unlikely mission. And yet who better to design the next great leap in technology than men remade by technology themselves?

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