Rethink Robotics Baxter is about 20 times cheaper than Willow Garage PR2 and can work for $4 per hour

NY TimesRethink Robotics Baxter, comes encased in plastic and has a nine-foot “wingspan,” is relatively slow and imprecise in the way it moves. And it has an elaborate array of safety mechanisms and sensors to protect the human workers it assists.

The $22,000 robot that Rethink will begin selling in October is the clearest evidence yet that robotics is more than a laboratory curiosity or a tool only for large companies with vast amounts of capital. The company is betting it can broaden the market for robots by selling an inexpensive machine that can collaborate with human workers, the way the computer industry took off in the 1980s when the prices of PCs fell sharply and people without programming experience could start using them right out of the box.

“It feels like a true Macintosh moment for the robot world,” said Tony Fadell, the former Apple executive who oversaw the development of the iPod and the iPhone.

Baxter will come equipped with a library of simple tasks, or behaviors — for example, a “common sense” capability to recognize it must have an object in its hand before it can move and release it.

Although it will be possible to program Baxter, the Rethink designers avoid the term. Instead they talk about “training by demonstration.” For example, to pick up an object and move it, a human will instruct the robot by physically moving its arm and making it grab the object.

Rodney A. Brooks with Baxter, a robot he developed with an array of safety mechanisms and sensors. NY Times

Willow Garage sells the PR2 for about $400,000

Baxter seems very comparable form factor wise to the PR2. Baxter is twenty times cheaper, a lot easier to program and with safety mechanisms and sensors.

Baxter is the first product of Rethink Robotics. They will have lower cost models and different form factors for other product niches.

What kind of work will Baxter and its ilk perform? Rethink, which is manufacturing Baxter in New Hampshire, has secretly tested prototypes at a handful of small companies around the country where manufacturing and assembly involve repetitive tasks. It estimates that the robots can work for the equivalent of about $4 an hour.

The next generation of robots will increasingly function as assistants to human workers, freeing them for functions like planning, design and troubleshooting.

Rethink’s strategy calls for the robot to double as a “platform,” a computerized system that other developers can add both hardware devices and software applications for particular purposes. It is based on open-source software efforts — including the Robot Operating System, or ROS, developed by the Silicon Valley company Willow Garage, and a separate project called OpenCV, or Open Source Computer Vision Library.

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