How Baxter, The Touchy Factory Robot, Learned To Loosen Up

Baxter, one of the safest industrial robots in the world, just got safer.

Unlike his hulking predecessors still in action, this automaton from Rethink Robotics merges the attributes of a personal robot with an industrial machine. Baxter’s facial screen projects eyes that show where the robot is focusing, or even when Baxter is confused by directions. Baxter’s powerful arms are capable of the most arduous factory tasks, but are also equipped with sensors to prevent collisions with nearby people.

In exchange for Baxter’s gentle demeanor, he moves cautiously and is very sensitive to his unpredictable human co-workers. One unexpected move within the robot’s workspace brings Baxter to a halt, all in the name of safety. With Rethink Robotic’s newest software upgrade however, switching between tasks and environmental variations don’t hinder Baxter’s performance. The Intera 3.1 Robot Positioning System, announced Monday, aims to loosen up the robot.

“Manufacturing robots have always been caged, not only to protect the workers around them from harm, but also to protect their precisely configured environments from being disrupted by those same workers,” Scott Eckert, CEO at Rethink Robotics, said in a statement. “With Baxter, we brought the manufacturing robot out of its cage by making it safe enough to work next to people; and now, we’ve made it safe for the robot to work effectively in real-world conditions as well, by allowing it to adapt to everyday variations that people naturally produce.”

See also: Why We’ll Have Robots In The Workplace Before Robots At Home

The company released a video to show Baxter in action. Ordinarily a dramatic movement in position—or even a slight bump—would freeze up the robot, but with RPS Baxter can use environmental markers, which the software dubs Landmarks, to quickly regain its bearings.


See also: How An Open Source Operating System Jumpstarted Robotics Research

Right now, there are hundreds of Baxters deployed in factories around the world, implementing dozens of variations on the same five tasks: kitting, packaging, loading and unloading, machine tending, and material handling. Ordinarily, factory robots can only implement one of these behaviors. Since Baxter isn’t caged, it has the ability to switch from one of these tasks to another, and now, with Robot Positioning Software, it no longer needs retraining in between jobs. 

At $25,000, Baxter costs as much as the average U.S. factory worker’s annual salary, which has led to concerns about it taking over human jobs. However, Baxter is better equipped to work alongside humans than alone, doing the mind-numbing tasks that people are worse at and leaving more cerebral tasks to human co-workers. 

The new Robot Positioning System makes Baxter move between tasks in minutes, but still as dependent as before on human coworkers. Baxter can now remember 20 different locations and tasks with the use of landmarks, but as seen in the video, it’s up for users to program and position it to begin with.

Screenshot via Rethink Robotics

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