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!
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.