Future-Proofing Robots with the IoT

As a product manager, Carl Palme is always focused on understanding what problem his company, Rethink Robotics, can solve for its customers, both today and in the future.

Rethink Robotics has been at the forefront of the collaborative robots market since the 2012 introduction of Baxter an industrial robot that can be safely integrated into manufacturing factory floors.

One of the ways that Rethink stays on the edge of innovation is to have a team of engineers and product designers that are flexible and responsive to the needs of the industry and its customers. “We focus on adapting to the needs of the market very, very quickly,” Palme says, “and we are always considering what’s next for our customers.”

At the same time, the company is also striving to design a product that doesn’t become obsolete quickly. “Our robots require an investment, and because of that, we work on designing hardware that is future proof and even more useful for our customers two or three years down the road,” says Palme.

To further future-proof its strategies, Rethink introduced Baxter with a concept that was a bit ahead of the curve in the robotics market at the time. This market changer was the company’s Intera software platform that can be upgraded every three or four months to allow for continuous innovation. Palme says this approach is now a paradigm that is pretty much accepted across the American market as a standard.

“Our software platform enables us to do some pretty interesting things because with every new release, we make our robots more and more powerful,” Palme says. “The platform allows us to take advantage of the latest trends in technology and it’s an easy and straightforward technical solution that protects the hardware investment of our customers.”

An example of the effectiveness of this approach is when the company discovered ways to optimize the movement of Baxter’s arms after observing how people were using the robot. “We came up with a software upgrade that optimized the paths of Baxter’s movement,” Palme says. “With that same software release, we were also able to make the robot twice as fast and twice as repeatable, just by observing how people were using it.”

The Internet of Things (IoT) presents the next wave of technology that the Rethink team is taking advantage of to keep its robots on the leading edge. Here, a prime example is the robot positioning system of Sawyer, a relatively new high-performance collaborative robot introduced in 2015 that can tackle precision tasks.

As a cage-free robot, Sawyer can work safely beside humans and cause no harm to them. However, one of the things the Rethink team discovered was that robotic cages not only protect humans from robots, but they also protect the robots from humans and their surroundings.

“Robots in industrial settings tend to go to very particular coordinates in space,” Palme says. “When anything in the immediate environment around a robot changes, it makes it more difficult for the robot to complete its assigned task. This reduces the productivity of the robot and may increase cycle time.” To help orientate Sawyer when spatial things change and avoid any downtime, Rethink designed a positioning system that uses data from cameras in the robot’s arm to identify where it is. With that intelligence, the robot can then easily reposition itself.

“We created an aluminum sensor sticker that people can put on objects in the workspace,” Palme says. “People can now move the robot away from the workspace, and when they bring it back in, they can position the robot in front of the sticker so it can take a picture of it. The robot then knows exactly where it is in its workspace.” If someone bumps into a table, it’s very easy for the operator to just take the arm, show the camera where the sticker is, and then the robot will reference itself quickly.

With this advanced software platform and the potential of IoT sensors and data, Rethink can now future-proof its products even more. 

“Because we designed Sawyer to play nicely in the IoT environment, we’ve outfitted it with a lot of sensors,” says Palme. “Not only can those sensors be useful in the field, but we can actually use that information to make our product better in the future with advances like the positioning system.”

Image courtesy of Rethink Robotics