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.
Glad you enjoyed my report, Nadine. Actually there's been a lot of intelligent robot design here in the US, but much of it's been aimed at military or rescue robots. Some's also been done in industrial robots, but not with the specific goal of a robot like Baxter. I'm really interested to see what developers do with the SDK.
My husband just told me he showed this article to one of the guys at work, who said the bone rasp looks like a diamond studded borer used in industrial mining. I've been avoiding thinking about what this femur borer actually does, but--Ouch!
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.
But the real point is that 3D printers can make complex shapes that would be too costly (translated: impossible) by other methods. I can imagine that bone cells would really gather 'round this object and build new bone. Additive technology will help us build shapes previously unattainable.
78RPM, I agree about 3D printing making stuff that's too complex to do any other way. That's definitely one of its big draws. BTW, the photo in this story doesn't show the $70 titanium part that bone grows around; that's an acetabular cup. The photo shows a titanium bone rasp for hollowing out femurs, as the caption states.
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.
Didn't realize that 3D printing for medical applications are over 30 percent and trending upward. It makes sense because 3D printing is a great fit for creating individualized, custom parts out of titanitum at a reasonable cost and with a rapid turn-around time.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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?
eafpres, it's pretty simple. if something larger than a part--like the human body--gets inside its working zone, it stops. This is determined by its sensors. Also, if you bump into it faster than it can respond, it won't hurt you because of its softer surface (plastic) and its considerably lower force, compared to other industrial 'bots. More details are available on the website.
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.
@CLMcDade , That "skin detector" used in the sawstop system would not help in a robot system because it uses a resistance principle, not a touch principle. And the reason that the saw companies are not rushing to adopt this system is that it has a few very big shortcomings, including a very expensive reset process and a propensity toward false triggers from wet wood and nails.
The two steps to make a robot safe for humans to be around is to slow it down to human speeds, and to eliminate pinch-points. By no means a trivial task, but certainly an achieveable target.
Agreed, William K. There are several reasons why saw manufacturers didn't rush to adopt SawStop -- another of which is the licensing fees. I have to admit, though, the story of the SawStop inventor is an intriguing one.
Charles, The interesting point associated with that SawStop invention came from the scientist that I was working with at a previous job. He pointed out that nobody makes any money off of safety devices until you can get the government to force everybody to use them. Examination of the safety things that we have today does show that it is absolutely correct. So in re3ality it is seldom about safety, it is always about profit.
If everybody really wanted the safest car possible we would all be driving Volvos, but as you can see some folks consider other aspects to be more important.
And some safety features only benefit those who should be limited to driving speeds of under 20MPH, specifically the new stability control systems that we will be forced to purchase in the near future. One more reason to stick with older model cars.
It's also easy to see why the power tool industry resists the technology, William K. The idea of implementing this technology raises the possibility of having to invest gigantic amounts of capital to re-tool their existing production lines.
Even more than changing the production lines, that sawstop works at the expense of saw functionality. Consider that it stops the blade with a ridgid stop lever jammed into the swas teeth. So it does stop fast enough to prevent an injury , which is within one tooths distance on the blade. So the blade attachment may be damaged, and for sure the blade is sort of reshaped a bit, and that expensive stop actuator must be replaced, since the high presure charge has been used. So your saw is out of business until the expensive part is replaced. That may be OK for a home experimenor but it will be a big problem for folks using the saw for making a living. Then there is the question about what if you don't replace the driver, but instead just remove it. That means that you have defeated a safety device, and can be attacked by the OSHA man.
So while the sawstop is an interesting device, it is a big burden as well. Next question is how many folks do cut off fingers every year? Not that many, I don't think.
Thanks Clinton. I did not think of Baxter wielding the bone rasp--I take no responsibility for others' imaginations! OTOH, Chuck, pointed out that it looks something like a medieval weapon, so I can understand the association. That's an interesting idea about flesh-sensors; I didn't know about that. Sounds like a good cross-app possibility. Hope Rethink is reading these comments...
Interesting use of safety technology. From their website, Baxter contains sensors and software protocols that detect people within contact distance and trigger the robot to slow to safe operation speeds. May be that the robot sets up programmable safety zones on sensor inputs. Every motor can also be "back driven" in order to comply when unexpectedly pushed backwards.
Al, as we said this is an industrial robot for doing simple, repetitive tasks, not highly precise, that humans previously did, such as the simple pick and place shown in the video. The point is that it's not highly specialized and can be easily programmed with open source software for whatever you need, within certain limits.
Thanks Ann. I guess their niche is just that -- simple to program applications that can leverage their safety technology. Maybe the problem is that I am programmed that in most pick and place applications, speed is extremely important. And the new Delta style robots are more flexible and less costly than robots with traditional articulated arms. Still makes me wonder how big a niche Baxter might find.
Al, I think you nailed it: our expectations of industrial robots are quite different from what this one doers. Which is, of course, the whole point. Regarding how big its niche will be, it's potentially pretty broad once the SDK comes out. Time will tell.
Folks, the discussion here about SawStop potentially being applied to robots working with humans gave me an idea. Please check out this post about possibly starting a Design Ideas forum and tell us what you think: http://www.designnews.com/author.asp?section_id=1392&doc_id=259964
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