Today’s robots are often associated with the large industrial ones used in constructing automobiles. However, this image is being challenged by a new, more flexible factory robot.

Meet Baxter, a two-handed manufacturing robot that can perform a wide range of tasks. The company that makes it, Rethink Robotics, was founded in 2008 by Rodney Brooks, who co-founded iRobot, the company behind the popular vacuum-cleaning robot Roomba.

The factory floor, says Brooks, has not been reached by the consumer IT revolution. “Usable devices have not gotten to factory floors at all, not just robots but everything else.” he says. “Everything’s complex, complex, complex, whereas IT has made things simple, simple, simple.”

He adds: “Imagine getting an Android phone or an iPhone and thinking ‘Yes, you just type at the UNIX command line to make a phone call’. That’s the level of interface that is out there.”

In contrast, Baxter is designed to be so intuitive that anyone in the factory can train it for a new task, quickly and easily, just by grabbing its arm and “showing” it what to do.

“You can set up a new task in just a few minutes”, exclaims Brooks. “We’ve always targeted that the overhead of training should be enough that even if the task only lasts for an hour or two, it can still be cost effective to train it. It’s a really different way of thinking about a robot in a factory than a conventional industrial robot, where four months is an amazingly short amount of time to have them doing the same task.”

Traditional industrial robots can be dangerous to work around; they are kept in cages or otherwise separated from line workers. Rethink Robotics, however, has designed Baxter to work alongside humans. This means a series of safety measures such as springs on each of the robot’s joints, a system that detects people nearby and carefully controls how fast the robot can move.

At US$ 22,000 for basic set-up, Baxter is designed to be practical for small and medium-sized businesses. In the US, where the robot has been on sale since January, it can reduce pressure to outsource manufacturing functions.

The company also wants Baxter to stimulate thinking about what robots might do next. Brooks points out that self-driving cars being developed are based on research that began when academics used low-cost robots to explore the potential for self-navigation. Brooks wants to encourage similar breakthroughs and so Rethink Robotics has begun shipping a research version of Baxter.

Brooks says the potential is vast and exciting: “Whether it’s serving you in the coffee shop or helping the elderly with their groceries, I wouldn’t put money on predicting, but I’m sure new applications will emerge out of that sea of really smart people thinking about stuff.”

The future means more robots at work, in the service industry and in the home. You might have already turned over the vacuum cleaning to a robot, but the Roomba’s successors will be even smarter and more capable.

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Author: Shane Richmond is an author and technology specialist.

Image: The hand of a robot is seen operating a switchboard in Germany REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch.