Rethink Robotics, Pioneer of Collaborative Robots, Shuts Down

Rodney Brooks’s startup developed a new class of factory robots that could safely work alongside people. Then came the hardest part: selling them

3 min read
Rethink Robotics' Baxter collaborative robot
Photo: Evan Ackerman/IEEE Spectrum

The Bad Boy of Robotics was in high spirits. Rodney Brooks had a lot to show us as we zigzagged through Rethink Robotics’ office in Boston on a June morning in 2012. That was the day Brooks introduced us to Baxter, a robot he said would transform manufacturing and “sell like hotcakes.”

So it was with a bit of sadness that we found out last night that Rethink is shutting down. After a long, 10-year run (the company was founded as Heartland Robotics, remember?) and US $150 million raised from investors, Rethink ran out of steam as sales fell short of the company’s goals. The news of the closing was first reported by the Robot Report yesterday.

We reached out to Brooks and asked what he was most proud of during his time at Rethink.

“I am most proud that we changed industrial robots forever, bringing them out of the cage and making them so that ordinary people could get robots to do new tasks and to tweak what they were doing without writing or reading a single line of code,” he told us.

“We also made it possible for hundreds of research groups around the world to have safe robot arms so that they could make rapid research progress using manipulation,” he added. “And we showed how real robot arms, with 35,000-hour lifetimes, could also be gentle enough to physically come into contact with humans—the consequences of this new class of robot are yet to be fully explored but it will be commonplace in just a few years.”

“I am most proud that we changed industrial robots forever, bringing them out of the cage and making them so that ordinary people could get robots to do new tasks and to tweak what they were doing without writing or reading a single line of code”

Brooks liked to demonstrate Baxter’s safety features by letting one of the robot’s arms bash into his own head. “See, I’m fine,” he would say after. And he enjoyed showing off how easy it was to program the robot by grabbing its arms and moving them around. Another impressive thing about Baxter was the $22,000 price tag—ridiculously low for an industrial robot at the time.

But sell like hotcakes Baxter did not. And neither did its successor, Sawyer, a more precise one-armed robot that Rethink introduced in 2015. The company then put a lot of its efforts into building a new version of its Intera software platform and focusing on automating tasks like electronics inspection.

It wasn’t enough. The collaborative robots market that Rethink helped pioneer proved highly competitive. And over the past several years another company, Universal Robots, came to dominate this space.

Rodney Brooks with Baxter Rodney Brooks with Baxter. Photo: David Yellen

Last year, we heard that there was growing frustration among Rethink’s distributors. Some were switching to Universal Robots. More recently, we heard that a Rethink acquisition was in the works, but since there were no subsequent announcements we assumed it had fallen through. Rethink CEO Scott Eckert confirmed to the Boston Globe that they were close to a sale but the buyer had backed out.

Brooks didn’t tell us what he’s planning to do next. The former MIT professor remains one of the most influential figures in robotics. He’s known for his groundbreaking work on behavioral robotics and robot architecture—a 1995 profile in Popular Science called him “the bad boy of robotics”—and for influential robots like Genghis and Cog. Brooks also cofounded iRobot and helped turn Roomba into the most popular consumer robot ever.

Now add Baxter to that list. The robot wasn’t a commercial success but it represents a major contribution from Brooks and his team: It was a milestone in bringing robots closer to people. With Baxter, “we don’t need to isolate the robot from people,” Brooks told us when we visited in 2012. “We don’t need to have a fence around it.” He then pulled out a printout of Rethink’s logo and pointed at it with a smirk. It’s a person next to a robot, he explained.

“People can work with the robot, so it’s collaborative,” Brooks said. “They’re right next to each other. They’re in each other’s space.”

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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

“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.

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

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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