Rodney Brooks, Co-Founder of iRobot, on to New Company

Rodney Brooks (right) helped Eduardo Torres-Jara (left) develop the Obrero bot. We could see a robot like this emerge as the flagship product for Brooks' new company: Heartland Robotics.
Rodney Brooks (right) helped Eduardo Torres-Jara (left) develop the Obrero bot. We could see a robot like this emerge as the flagship product for Brooks’ new company: Heartland Robotics.

What do you do after you’ve climbed a mountain? Climb another one. Rodney Brooks, MIT professor, robotic guru, and co-founder of iRobot is developing another robotics company, Heartland Robotics (now Rethink Robotics). Along with Helen Greiner and Colin Angle, Brooks helped iRobot become a household name with the development of the widely popular vacuum bot, Roomba. Now Brooks is looking to improve the capabilities of the average worker with a new robot and a new robot company. Obrero, is a humanoid-like bot with a hand developed for sensitive manipulation, see the video below, and seems likely to be developed into Heartland’s chief product. The questions on everyone’s mind: can Brooks strike gold again, and will Obrero become the next Roomba?

In some cases, robotics have already entered and dominated the commercial workforce. As we’ve said before, KIVA, FlexPicker, and desktop dispensing bots are at the top of their specialized fields. On the retail side, Roomba is still a popular product after 7 years. Brooks may be able to blend the two fields by combining industrial level capabilities with retail-level prices.

As you can see in the video, Obrero is a robot with a sensitive hand. It’s delicate enough to hold onto those cookies and not break a one. That’s important to us cookie lovers, but also to anyone who hopes to work along side a machine without losing a limb. It’s unclear if Brooks aims to adapt the robot to a particular level of manufacturing or even if Obrero, in its current incarnation, will serve as the key product of Heartland Robotics. The technologies involved, sensitive manipulation and object recognition, could be adapted into different robots in the future with a wide range of possible uses.

Though Brooks’ career spans decades of outstanding robotic accomplishments, he never makes his achievements alone. Eduardo Torres-Jones, one of MIT’s CSAIL graduate students, developed Obrero (which in Spanish means ‘worker’) under Brooks’ guidance. Heartland Robotics already has its top brass organized, but they are still looking for many senior positions.

It’s still too early to tell how Heartland will fare, but when one of the people from iRobot starts talking new companies, I start to listen. More than 2 million Roombas have been sold worldwide. If Brooks can capture just some of that popularity with his next venture, we’re going to be seeing his robots become part of the industrial landscape.

And if he can’t get Heartland off the ground? We’re still going to see a lot more robots in jobs that used to belong to humans. Robotic workforces have some amazing advantages that are too profitable to ignore. But blue-collar types shouldn’t lose hope, there’s a new paradigm that I think Brooks and others are working towards: the human-machine worker. Why settle for a robot or a human when a human working with a robot gives you maximized results? Getting biology and machinery to work together with all the perks and none of the disadvantages is a mountain of a task. And I have no doubt someone is going to climb it.

[photo credit: Patsy Stampson]