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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How the U.S. Army Is Turning Robots Into Team Players

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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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