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Predicting a New Class of Robot

POSTED 01/21/2010

Is the world edging closer to a new class of robot? Rodney Brooks thinks so. He brought us the Roomba robotic vacuum and now says we are on the verge of a new category of robot as hundreds of top industry executives gathered for the Robotics Industry Forum in Orlando, Florida. His comments came on the first day of Robotic Industries Association’s annual event (January 20-22, 2010), and provided some insight into his new venture called Heartland Robotics.

Few people know what is going on at Heartland Robotics and Mr. Brooks was careful to avoid specifics, but he showed video of robots that faintly resemble Star Wars’ C-3PO. He spoke of how a world dominated by the Wal-Mart style of business (which he says relies heavily on cheap Chinese labor) might assimilate new types of robotics into the workforce and eliminate the need to outsource.

He’s not the first to predict that robots will be able to see, touch, handle and move product just like laborers in a warehouse, but unlike most he has a track record of success when it comes to selling robots that people use in their homes. He tells us five million Roombas have been sold without a single lawsuit over injuries (to people or their pets), which is an important consideration for the type of robot he proposes.

Fear is a common response to change so safety is no small matter. Acceptance of any technology has to withstand the test of safety. It is so important that Robotic Industries Association invests copious amounts of time and resources to sponsor and refine the ANSI/RIA R15.06 robot safety standard for industrial robots, and Mr. Brooks expects the same kind of focus is needed for new types of robots.

Some people characterize non-industrial robots as service robots or consumer robots. According to Mr. Brooks there may be some other category needed to represent advancements in this technology. He’s not the first to predict a sea change event is near that will lead to a new understanding of robotics, but his labs at Heartland Robotics may be among the few that actually creates a product that brings us closer to that tipping point. He promises to keep his fellow members at RIA informed when he is ready to unveil the work he is incubating, and for many the process has already begun with networking at the Robotics Industry Forum.