SAN JOSE, Calif. — An army of more user-friendly robots is headed for the factory floor, but they may have to climb over cumbersome safety regulations, according to two pioneers in the field speaking at a workshop here.
“There’s a big market for automating small companies,” said Esben Ostergaard, chief technologist at Universal Robots, a Danish company now selling as many as 150 robots a month.
Safety regulations that demand multi-page risk assessments and complex danger mitigation schemes threaten progress, he said. He compared today’s safety standards to an 1861 law in England that required all cars to have a person walk in front of them carrying a red flag.
“We can’t have systems that are so safe they are useless,” he said, noting existing and pending ISO standards. “Our take on safety is it’s a moving target.”
“Using our safety strategy we will never get to [robots capable of moving] a meter a second with 40kg, so there are limitations on what can be done,” said Rodney Brooks, founder and chief technologist of Rethink Robotics.
Nevertheless, the new crop of robots will overtake traditional systems despite today’s stringent safety standards, Brooks said. “Companies using regulation to resist change will be swept away… Resisting change to protect an existing business is a losing strategy.”
Rethink’s Baxter is one of a coming army of robots that can be set up by novice users and do not need to be kept inside fenced-in areas, said Brooks, who also co-founded iRobot, maker of the Roomba robotic vacuum cleaner. The emerging robots are generally smaller, cheaper, more diverse, and smarter than traditional cast-iron robotic arms. They integrate vision and force sensors and offer tethered tablets sporting touchscreen controls.
The Universal Robot sports at least one microcontroller in each of its several joints and is controlled using a purpose-built x86 tablet, said Ostergaard. By contrast, traditional factory floor robotic arms typically use external sensors, vision systems, and controllers.
“Moving to software platforms totally changes the game,” said Brooks. “Using a software platform, we improved our robot’s speed by a factor of three and its accuracy by a factor of two within 18 months — that does not happen with a hardware platform.”
Baxter currently runs on two software loads, but over the next year Rethink will merge them into one that will be “open to third-party developers at every level,” Brooks said. More inexpensive and flexible robots with intuitive user interfaces, he believes, “will really change the world.”
“It’s no longer just about building a robotic arm. Other players will come in with other solution sets,” he said. “Over the next few years, there will be many more features and more players than we consider today… Every venture capitalist is now trying to be in robotics, and when we get that wave of innovation there will be a lot of other” features.
Today’s industrial robots are most often used by carmakers to handle single, heavy tasks. They can cost as much as $250,000 to $500,000 including the costs of protective fencing and specialist installers and programmers, Ostergaard said.
By contrast, products such as Baxter and Universal Robots cost less than a tenth of that price, don’t need fencing, and can be flexibly programmed by novice users to handle a changing variety of tasks. By 2017, Ostergaard projects his company could be selling as many as 600 robots a month, mainly to small companies. Big carmakers are beginning to experiment with the new products, too, he said.
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