Foellmer demonstrated what happens when you stick your arm into the path of Baxter's pick-and-place operation -- it stops right away. It also won't pinch you if you get your arm or leg stuck inside its area of operation, such as under one of its moving arms. At first I let Foellmer risk his limbs, not mine. Then I let Baxter's arms run into my arm. The robot's force-detecting motors stopped it immediately.
Being also a materials person, I immediately noticed that Baxter has mostly plastic surfaces, not hard, metallic ones. That's highly uncommon in industrial machines, although not unusual in some service robots. It's also another thing that makes this robot safer.
The second major goal was to make Baxter simple enough so human workers can train it to do easy but repetitive tasks. In other words, it can be programmed by people on the floor, not those with advanced engineering degrees wearing a special software pendant. The fact that it doesn't need complex programming also means it's simple to integrate into existing automated operations, although many smaller manufacturers don't have existing automated assembly lines anyway. Most of their assembly cells are inhabited by humans doing things by hand. But the simplicity of programming makes changing Baxter's tasks much easier than is usually the case in industrial robots. We've discussed that excruciating complexity on several Design News comment boards.
Rethink Robotics' Baxter. (Source: Design News)
Baxter does not move large parts: It's got a payload limit of five pounds per arm. It's also got a small footprint, weighs about the same as an average-sized adult man, and can be moved around fairly easily. It's clearly not meant to do everything, and doesn't do the kind of high-speed pick-and-place on display in Anaheim by major industrial robot makers like ABB. The other revolutionary thing about Baxter is its open-source Unix-based OS, ROS (robot operating system). That plus an SDK to be released later this year will help open up the robot as a platform for development.
Baxter's $22,000 price tag is much lower than the typical two-armed industrial robot, which should make it more appealing to small companies that want to start using automation. It's already been beta tested at a couple of customer sites, Foellmer said, and has just started shipping.
Good article, Ann. Looks like the trade show had a lot of interesting products to keep you busy.
You've got two great concepts here, but keeping them separate might be a good idea. Imagine Baxter with that bone rasp in each "hand" and an angry face on the computer screen!!!
Seriously, as for the concern about differentiating between a person or a part, I wonder if the flesh-sensing technology used in saws (i.e. table saws) would be able to be integrated into the "skin" of a robot to help it identify humans. Since the saw companies are resisting using the technology, perhaps the robot industry would be able to incorporate it.
Tim, Baxter isn't really designed to handle fine pick and place movements such as is needed in small-parts electronics assembly. Those are very sophisticated, expensive, precise machines. It's targeted at less precise movements. It's also designed to work alongside humans more than to interact with other robots.
I know exactly what you mean, Chuck--actually, it looks more like what's called a fantasy weapon, which are more extreme versions of actual (usually medieval) weaponry used in both historical and fantasy movies and some role-playing/re-enactment games, and are represented in some video games.
Greg, I knew medical and dental was a major app area but not that it had reached such a high percentage. I agree, it makes total sense. The reduction in cost per item of a titanium device is what amazed me the most.
Hi Ann--Baxter has gotten a lot of attention since it was rolled out. I wonder about the ultimate safety in a real environment. To do its job it has to learn some places or zones where it expects "parts" and everywhere else would be an exception so the sensors can stop it. If your body is where a part should be, how does it know the difference?
I can imagine a learning process where the entire profile of motion, including all 3D forces and accelerations are recorded and stored, and some threshold set to that if during the entire operation a threshold is exceeded it stops. I don't know if that is more or less what they are doing. Even if that is true, a human has to set the thresholds in the learned profile, and production engineers being human, will tend to set the thresholds to eliminate any false alarms. That opens the door to injury.
Do you have any deeper insight into how Baxter will always know the difference between work and a human?
Yes, the photo of the femur bone rasp is seriously daunting! Looks more like a weapon for a scifi superhero than a doctor...hopefully patients are under heavy anesthesia before something like this is used on them. The innovations in fabrication of the tool are quite impressive, though.
Enjoyed your firsthand account of Baxter, Ann. Sounds like "he" behaves as the company said he would, but I guess the proof of his usefulness on the factory floor will be in the pudding. Generally he sounds quite impressive, though!
I can see a lot of applications where the Baxter robot can be used in assembly line application. The robot can handle the arduous task of picking and placing a part for the operator to complete some fine assembly work like fitting tight tolerance components together. The operator can then safely hand the part to another robot for assemnbly or packout.
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