Heartland Raises $20 Million, Talks Big About Robots

$20 million richer, but no clearer on what they are actually producing, Heartland remains a tantalizing mystery to investors.

What do Roombas and Kindles have in common? They’re fueling the next generation of industrial robots. Rodney Brooks, one of the founders of iRobot, has been developing his new company, Heartland Robotics, for the past few years. Recently Heartland announced it had raised $20 million in series B funding. Among the second round of financiers is returning investor Bezos Enterprises, the personal fund of Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon. According to Brooks, Heartland Robotics will revolutionize the field of industrial robots, moving us away form big bulky machines that are dangerous to be around. The working robot of the future will be safer, smarter, and cheaper. At least, that’s Heartland’s plan. We’ve yet to see a hint, let alone a working prototype, of what the new company is developing. Still, with Brooks’ impressive history in robotics, and with a growing pile of capital to draw upon, Heartland Robotics may be able to live up to its claims.

As we’ve mentioned in our past Heartland coverage, it looks like Brooks may be building off of a humanoid grasping arm called Obrero. Frustratingly, no one from the new company has confirmed that premise or proposed alternatives. In a general way, however, Brooks made his thoughts on the current stand of manufacturing robots clear in a presentation to Maker Faire in 2009. I’ve shown parts of this before so I just want to share a brief clip (see the following) where he addresses ways to improve robots. I’m not sure what Heartland is building, but judging from these comments they are probably focusing on visual and audio recognition, and pairing that to improvements in dexterity.

Even without knowing exactly what Heartland is up to the internet media as well as investor groups seem to believe its potential is remarkably big. That perception is enhanced by some of the over-the-top rhetoric coming out of the company. Brooks and iRobot have been pivotal players in US robotics, but these claims seem grandoise even for him. I’ll leave you to mull over the ones below on your own. Can Heartland, or any single company, enact this kind of innovation in industrial robotics? Too early to say…but if they succeed it’s going to cause some profound and wonderful changes to the way we produce everything.

Our robots will be intuitive to use, intelligent and highly flexible. They’ll be easy to buy, train, and deploy and will be unbelievably inexpensive. Heartland Robotics will change the definition of how and where robots can be used, dramatically expanding the robot marketplace.
—Rodney Brooks, Heartland Robotics Press Release 11/30/2010


It used to be the stuff of science fiction. Now it’s simply science. Robotics has advanced to the point where industrial robots are no longer the sole province of a few big manufacturers in a handful of industries. Soon any manufacturer will be able – quickly, affordably, with no special technical skills – to acquire a robot and integrate it into the production process.
— Taken from the Heartland Robotics website.


Robots will change the way we work.

They will have intelligence and awareness. They will be teachable, safe and affordable. They will make us productive in ways we never imagined.

Robots will reinvigorate industry and inject new life into the economy. Making businesses more competitive. Keeping jobs from moving overseas. Demonstrating the power of American ingenuity.

Robots will change how we think about manufacturing. And Heartland will change how we think about robots.
— Taken from the Heartland Robotics website.

[image credit: Heartland Robotics]
[source: Heartland Robotics, Press Release (PDF)]

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