What’s going to be the next big thing in robotics? Maybe a new take on the industrial machine. Rodney Brooks, one of the founders of iRobot and the creators of the Roomba, has been developing a new company known as Heartland Robotics. While Brooks hasn’t publicly revealed the exact nature of Heartland’s technology, insiders say they’ve seen a low-cost ($5000?) robotic arm that you can program just by moving. Such a device, if well executed could help innovate and automate small businesses everywhere. Great. When will it arrive? That’s just another part of the Heartland mystery, but the company recently announced that it was moving its headquarters to Boston’s new “innovation district” (the Fort Point Channel area). It also plans on expanding its roster of 30 or so employees to a full 50 by the end of the year. Scott Eckert, Heartland’s CEO, explained that they were looking to grow quickly, stating “We are moving forward aggressively in developing our products and expanding our team.” That kind of growth might suggest that Heartland is getting ever closer to drawing back the veil and finally showing us what they’ve been working on in the lab.
We’ve been tracking Heartland Robotics so closely for two reasons: Rodney Brooks, and good hype. Brooks is one of the big names in robotics, and the innovator who steered the field towards behavior-based algorithms like the ones you see in Roomba. For a decade he directed MIT’s CSAIL and…yeah, the man’s kind of a legend. If most people said they were going to “revolutionize industrial robotics” I’d just nod politely, but with Brooks I pay close attention. Especially when I kind of believe in what I think is his basic concept. Before leaving MIT, Brooks helped develop Obrero, a PhD project that consisted of a robotic arm with a fine-tuned grip and some impressive capabilities. With the right vision, and responsive sensor feedback, such an arm could become the industrial robot that anyone can purchase for their small business. As we’ve seen time and time again, industrial bots have transformed large scale manufacturing, having a huge impact on labor in the US and abroad. What if that same transformation could be brought to businesses with only a few employees? I think Brooks and Heartland are working on just such a project, and I think there’s a reasonable chance they’ll succeed.
Whatever Heartland Robotics is building behind closed doors, the recent relocation and push to expand hiring is a sure sign the company is moving towards its goals. We’ll keep you updated as we learn more.
[image credit: MIT, Heartland Robotics, Google Maps ]
[source: Heartland Robotics press release]