Cheap Robots Are Ready for Work

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Cheap Robots Are Ready for Work

In previous issues, we’ve explored the many useful applications of service robots.  Unfortunately, the evolution of manufacturing robots has proceeded at a much slower pace.  But suddenly, progress has accelerated on this front, and two breakthrough bots are ready to hit the market.

In many ways, robots are now at the same point on the evolutionary scale as the automobile was when the Model-T was introduced in 1908; that was the car that first made automobiles affordable to the mass market.  An analogous product was the Apple II, the first truly user-friendly personal computer, which opened computing to everyday people.  Similarly, the two new commercial robots—Baxter and UBR1—are ready to bring the benefits of robotic automation inexpensively to the workplace.

Significantly, both robots are designed to work beside humans, rather than simply replacing them.  Just like the Model-T and the Apple II, they are also much more affordable than earlier generations.  While conventional manufacturing robots cost $285,000 to $400,000 for models with two human-like arms, these revolutionary new robots have eliminated unnecessary features and are about 90 percent cheaper.

The UBR1 robot has only a single arm because research by its creators found that few applications of robots need both arms.  It hails from a start-up company called Unbounded Robotics, a spinoff from Willow Garage, which makes conventional robots.  It costs $35,000, is three feet, two inches tall, and weighs 73 kg.1  UBR1 moves in a circular motion on wheels.  The torso of the robot can stretch so that its head can range from a height of three feet, two inches to four feet, four inches from the ground.  Its arm is slightly less than 30 inches long, with four joints and a pincer grip.  The eyes hide three lenses of a depth camera, which was made by the company PrimeSense.

The robot runs on the Robot Operating System, or ROS, and can be controlled with a PlayStation3 controller.  ROS is an open-source robot operating system developed by Willow Garage and Stanford AI Labs.  The company believes the robot will be useful for stocking shelves and order picking in warehouses.  UBR1 will begin to ship next summer. 

Rethink Robotics developed the other robot, Baxter, which costs just $22,000.2  It stands three feet, one inch tall, but with an optional pedestal its height can extend from five feet, ten inches to six feet, three inches...

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