Domo Arigato

By ERIN BALDASSARI  |  May 2, 2011

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HEARTLAND ROBOTICS

THE BOT | Is in stealth mode

THE INDUSTRY | Manufacturing

THE PROBLEM | Industrial robots are hard for workers to interact with

THE SOLUTION | A dexterous robot that workers can reprogram at will

LEARN MORE | heartlandrobotics.com

The name "Rodney Brooks" is nearly synonymous with the robotics industry in Boston, and for good reason: a co-founder of the robotics giant iRobot, Brooks is also a professor emeritus at MIT whose students have gone on to found companies of their own.

Brooks's latest project is called Heartland Robotics, and so far, it's shrouded in mystery. Brooks wouldn't show the Phoenix what he's building in his newly acquired 18,400-square-foot Fort Point loft space in Boston's old manufacturing district. But the high-tech rumor mill says he's developing a humanoid grasping arm with advanced dexterity and visual and audio recognition capabilities — all based on technologies Brooks directed at MIT, and aimed at industrial markets.

"The big change in robotics in the last 10 years has been the emergence of robots that ordinary people interact with," says Brooks. "The first industrial robot was introduced 50 years ago, in an auto manufacturing company, but it was dangerous, and ordinary people couldn't even get close to them." By making the tech more intuitive and dropping the price point dramatically, Brooks wants a bot that ordinary factory workers can easily reprogram for different tasks. In much the same way that computers were able to take over time-consuming jobs to allow their human operators to be more productive, Brooks is hoping to turn factory work from the mundane to the meaningful.

It's only serendipitously symbolic that Heartland Robotics is located in an area that once housed Boston's first electrified factories.

"The building we're in was built in the 1900s, based on a mandate from the city for revitalizing manufacturing in Boston," Brooks says. "So, there is a certain poetry to that." Brooks won't say when he plans to unveil his new robots, but speculators expect developments within the year, even if the first commercial product is a long way off.

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