Heartland Robotics To Build Low-Cost ($5,000) Mobile Manipulators?

Heartland Robotics

Heartland Robotics, the stealthy robotics startup founded by iRobot co-founder and robotics legend Rod Brooks, was in the news again last week after closing a $20M financing round.  Little is known about the company beyond broad superlatives from executives about building robots to "increase productivity and revitalize manufacturing."  Now, successful fundraising by a robotics startup is great news, but alone it was insufficient to draw my laser-focus away from thesis work.  However, a Boston.com article this weekend provided a tantalizing new nugget of information that I absolutely must share -- Heartland is working on a new mobile manipulator with a $5,000 projected price point complete with one or two arms, grippers, sensor head, and a mobile base.  If coupled with a depth camera (eg. Kinect) and a decent computer, this could be a really compelling robot platform!  If this price point is real, perhaps those superlatives aren't so inflated after all...  

From the Boston.com article:

Visitors to Heartland describe a robot that looks like a human from the waist up, with a torso; either one or two arms with grippers; and a camera where you might expect the head to be. The robot is on a rolling base rather than legs; it can be moved around but doesn’t move autonomously. The arm and gripper can be quickly trained to do a repetitive task just by moving them, no software code required.

And I’m told the robot has a sense for when people get close, so it doesn’t pose a safety hazard to humans working alongside it.

The company is apparently targeting a $5,000 price point.

...

“We’ve seen robots that are expensive and require a lot of customization,’’ said this person. “Those are like mainframes and minicomputers. Heartland believes they’re developing the PC of the robotics world.’’

Updated Dec. 11th, 2010:  I've been working with mobile manipulators too long...  A Hizook reader notes that a "rolling base that doesn't move autonomously" may not be powered at all; it could just be a base with passive wheels, like a desk chair.  In other words, it could resemble a Kawada Industries Nextage robot with passive (chair-like) wheels.  Until we receive better, more substantiated evidence, I'm going to assume the eventual Heartland robot is not a mobile manipulator after-all.

The human safety comment makes me think that the arms will have some form of compliance -- either through natural compliance (series elastic like Cody's Meka arms or back-drivable, low-torque, counter-balanced arms like the Willow Garage PR2) or computational compliance (like the Kuka arms on Justin).  Just imagine a robot like Cody, Justin, or a PR2 for as little as $5,000 -- it boggles the mind!

Cody Robot with Natural (SEA) Compliance  Justin Humanoid with Computational Compliance (KUKA arms)  PR2 Robot

 

It's also worth taking a moment to acknowledge Aethon, a robotics startup in the hospital logistics space, who also raised a $2M funding round last week.  By my calculations, that brings their total up to ~$39M.  It is somewhat encouraging that robotics companies are being recognized by investors and VCs.

 

Comments

The low price seems very enticing, I wonder if this robot is designed in a way that is substantially different way from compareable robots are designed or if it is similar to these but built with more economical parts? Pictures and or technical data for this robot would be interesting 

—BlGene
Low cost is good. What are the sensors?
—Ed Pell

I've been working with mobile manipulators too long...  A Hizook reader notes that a "rolling base that doesn't move autonomously" may not be powered at all; it could just be a base with passive wheels, like a desk chair.  In other words, it could resemble a Kawada Industries Nextage robot with passive (chair-like) wheels.  Until we receive better, more substantiated evidence, I'm going to assume the eventual Heartland robot is not a mobile manipulator afterall.

—Travis Deyle

I suppose they at least need to have brakes if they are going to manipulate objects on an assembly line :).

—Marc Killpack

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