Video: Baxter 2.0 Extends Robot's Reach

A new software upgrade to Rethink Robotics' Baxter robot extends the innovative bot's reach, makes it easier to program more precisely, improves overall performance, and expands its uses in the small to medium-sized companies it was designed for. The upgrade is free to existing users, and a new robot equipped with the upgrade costs the same as one with the previous version.

Baxter 2.0 adds three main features and three main performance improvements to the robot, Rethink Robotics CEO Scott Eckert told Design News in an interview. The features are Pick and Place Everywhere, defining Waypoints, and a Hold function, while the improvements are in terms of speed, repeatability, and vision capabilities.

Before, the user-friendly industrial robot could only pick up an object and move it horizontally. Pick and Place Everywhere lets Baxter perform pick and place at any axis, from any orientation to any orientation. This feature expands its uses to machine tending, where it inserts an object into a machine, and then pulls it back out. It also makes it capable of performing warehouse functions like picking from shelves and putting objects into a box, or placing objects onto a shelf from a box.

Waypoints lets users define more precisely the specific trajectory of Baxter's arm movements. "In the past, users defined start and end points, and Baxter solved its own path," Eckert told us.

It can still do this, but you might want to modify some of that trajectory. Say there's a small window in a machine, like a door it needs to insert something into and then move its arm out of. With waypoint definition, you can more specifically and precisely define the locations of the arm, all the points on the path the arm is taking.

Users train Baxter by physically moving its arms into each point along the path and then pushing a button to set those in memory. This function can be used for avoiding nearby obstacles, or for placing parts in a machine in a very precise way.

The third new feature, Hold, lets users train Baxter to hold an object still for a pre-determined period of time, or until a signal is given, in front of a barcode scanner or a camera. It's especially helpful for different product identification needs, and for test and sort functions, like separating good and bad parts. Its also useful for holding an object in front of a painting station, or for interacting with other machines.

In overall task performance, a Baxter 2.0-equipped bot is now 25 to 30 percent faster than before, said Eckert. "We measured this using the cycle time needed to do a full operation of picking up an object and putting it down," he said. Another improvement the upgrade brings is in repeatability, defined as how accurately a robot returns to its previous position. This is now measured at 5 mm of the robot across its workspace, and even closer near Baxter's body. The combination of greater speed and repeatability results in greater fluidity and smoothness of motion, making its movements more efficient.

As someone who used to report on machine vision technology, I found the vision improvements in Baxter 2.0 especially interesting. Now included are algorithms for basic object recognition. Eckert said Rethink has some high-powered vision industry consultants that wrote these to help keep costs down, versus the extremely expensive commercial software that's available.

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