Gentler, More Aware ‘Cobots’ Are Coming

5 min read




GE Robotics recently spoke to Professor Rodney Brooks, where he opened the GE Global Research Robotics Symposium. Below is an edited version of their conversation.

Few people have done more to bring humans and robots together than Rodney Brooks. Two decades ago, the Australian inventor, mathematician and former MIT professor founded iRobot, the company that designed Roomba, a line of robots that zip around homes and clean dirty floors. Today, he’s still dreaming up clever ways to make robots do our dirty work — but in factories rather than living rooms.

In 2008, he founded the Boston-based Rethink Robotics, a company building collaborative robots like Baxter and the one-armed Sawyer. These “cobots” are working next to humans in assembly plants and warehouses, handling many repetitive, dirty and difficult tasks. Brooks serves as chairman and chief technology officer of Rethink Robotics, whose investors include Bezos Expeditions, Goldman Sachs, as well as GE Ventures.

GE REPORTS: How do you convince factory workers to start collaborating with your robots?

RODNEY BROOKS: Most of our customers are putting robots in places they never had robots before. Traditional industrial robots require a cage around them so people can’t get close to them because they’re just not safe.

Our robots are safe. People can place robots into workspaces right next to humans and have them take over the really dull, repetitive parts of the jobs that people don’t like doing.
GER: How do you design them so that they don’t knock someone over?

RB: Our robots have force sensors in every joint. As they’re moving, they’re predicting how much force they should feel, and then, if they hit something, within a millisecond or two they’re aware that the forces are not what they expected. We quickly shut down the motion and then we go into what is called squish mode, where a person can just push the arm out of the way.

GER: Squish mode sounds awesome.

RB: Indeed. As a result, you’re never going to get trapped by the robot and you only get hit very, very gently. For my robots, I’m always willing to put my head right in front of the robot and have a whack.

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