Rodney Brooks Leaves MIT, Is Heartland Robotics About To Take Off?

Brooks left MIT. Heartland may be ready to take off.

Rodney Brooks is one of the founders of iRobot, and an influential figure in the world of robotics. For the past 26 years he’s been a professor at MIT, but that changes starting July 1st. According to Xconomy, Brooks is formally retiring from MIT, at age 55, the earliest possible time at which he can become a professor emeritus. Seemingly in good health and good standing at the University, it is very likely that Brooks is leaving MIT to focus on his new venture: Heartland Robotics. The robotics startup aims to bring human-like robots to the workplace. With Brooks’ full attention now resting on it, Heartland Robotics is a company to watch.

Brooks, Colin Angle, and Helen Greiner started iRobot back in 1990. They since have built it into a robotics empire, selling more than 2.5 million of their Roomba vacuum cleaners and working on dozens of different projects in fields as diverse as sea-exploration and army intelligence. But Brooks is more than just a founder of a major robotics firm, he’s also a top innovator of the field. His behavioral approach to programming robots defined the archetype of household and office bots for years. His future ideas could be likewise definitive.

Back in 2008, Brooks left his position as Chief Technology Officer at iRobot, presumably to give him more time to focus on his work at Heartland. Now that his duties at MIT are also ending, it’s likely to facilitate an even bigger change in the robotics firm. The only question I have: is Brooks leaving MIT because Heartland is ready to ramp up, or is he leaving because Heartland desperately needs his attention to keep from failing? Either way, we can probably expect news to come out of the Massachusetts-based company rather soon.

In 2009 Brooks gave a talk at Maker Faire about how robots can be, and need to be, adapted to enter into human workplaces. While not directly about Heartland Robotics, the talk gives some great insight into Brooks’ outlook. Check it out in the video from Fora.Tv below.

When we reviewed Heartland Robotics back in September of last year, the main focus of their work was the Obrero robot. Developed in large part by grad student Eduardo Torres-Jara, the Obrero is a new model for gentler robotic limbs. It can pick up delicate objects easily and is still nimble enough to work in practical applications. This gives the robot the potential to work in human-environments, interacting with us without the fear of a crushed hand or damaged equipment.

Curiously, I can no longer find public videos of the Obrero robot in action. The associated channel on YouTube seems to have been removed or restricted and the video we linked to in our previous story is now private. While this certainly could be just a house-keeping type error, it may mean that Heartland is moving towards market and doesn’t want information available too soon.

Heartland seems to still be operating in stealth mode, and as such it’s hard to predict what (if anything) the company may produce in the next few years. Yet Brooks’ record for inventive engineering stands on its own. When he and his partners started iRobot it was with the hopes of bringing robots into the mainstream. I think they succeeded rather well. Now, Brooks and Heartland want to expand robot use into every level of manufacturing and human work. Could he succeed again? Not sure I would bet against him.

If you have any tips or information about what Heartland is up to, please do let us know!

[image credit: MIT]

[source: Xconomy]

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