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OM in the News: Uncaged, Robots Become Gentler

April 22, 2013
The Baxter robot

The Baxter robot

FACTORY robots are usually caged off from humans on the assembly line lest the machines’ powerful steel arms deliver an accidental, bone-crunching right hook. But now, reports The New York Times (March 31, 2013), gentler industrial robots are coming out from behind their protective fences to work shoulder-to-shoulder with people. It’s an advance made possible by sophisticated algorithms and improvements in sensing technologies like computer vision.

The key to these new robots is the ability to respond more flexibly, anticipating and adjusting to what humans want. That is in contrast to earlier generations of robots that often required extensive programming to change the smallest details of their routine. A Georgia Tech prof states: “Robots of the future won’t just be in manufacturing. Almost any area could have a robot that would help make our life easier, whether lifting patients in hospital beds or helping at home.”

Gentle, helpful robots aren’t just being created in labs; they are also arriving in the marketplace. Since January, Rethink Robotics of Boston has been sending customers its two-armed robot called Baxter, which can work uncaged, moving among people. Baxter’s cameras inspect what is to be lifted, recognizing an object from many angles. In the coming year, Baxter will be able to grab objects not only from above, but also from the side, putting them into a milling machine, for example, and pressing the “go” button. It will also be able to connect with other machines to synchronize tasks.

“Baxter is a great starting point for this new generation of robots,” adds the Georgia Tech prof, “making the technology accessible to companies that before would have had to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars.”

Discussion questions:

1. How have robots evolved in the past 20 years?

2. What are some operations functions that a robot like Baxter can help improve?

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