May 06, 2012      

Redwood Robotics is questing after one of robotics’ most exclusive and elusive killer apps: robotic arms and hands. And by the look of the triumvirate it has assembled to pursue that challenge, it just might pull it off.

Today, Redwood’s website is but a single page in vivid red with white-lettered text announcing confidently: “Redwood Robotics will enable the personal and service robot markets through a new generation of robot arms that are simple to program, inexpensive, and safe to operate alongside people.”

Arms and the robot: a difficult challenge

There are over a thousand robotics’ companies worldwide of which to date none have come close to producing a robotic arm and hand with capabilities comparable to those of a human; although, if such an arm and hand were available, most of these very same companies would try to move heaven and earth to acquire it. The degree of difficulty is so great in making such an arm that in the sixty years robotic arms have been around, nothing remotely humanlike has yet to emerge.

Whosoever can produce such a robotic arm and hand will have conquered one of the most elusive quests in robotics, while, at the same time, will have vaulted itself to the pinnacle of robotic technology and high-tech wealth. It’s reminiscent of the elusive chore that Apple, Inc. took on and won for computing. Apple, Inc. today, as everyone knows, is both the wealthiest and the most admired company in the world (AAPL). Indeed, for the victor who conquers the robotic arm and hand conundrum will go spoils equal to or maybe greater than those for the house that Jobs and Woz built.

Heartland Robotics is in the game

One contender for the robot crown in arm and hand development is Boston’s Heartland Robotics, founded by the legendary robotics pioneer Rodney Brooks (also founder of iRobot). Secretive and notoriously tight-lipped about nearly everything Heartland does, the one thing that is well known is that its forte will be the robotic arm and hand. As Brooks puts it: “Robots in an automobile factory manipulate objects, but they do the same thing, along the same path, every time. If robots are ever going to be truly useful, they need to be able to manipulate the objects we manipulate.” Brooks’ robotic device will be revealed to the world at booth #860 on January 21st at Automate 2013 in Chicago.

Redwood Robotics: the triumvirate

The other contender is Silicon Valley start-up Redwood Robotics, which announced itself to the world at the Xconomy forum on “The Future of Robotics in Silicon Valley and Beyond” (May 3rd). Xconomy’s Wade Roush wrote, “After a year in the planning stages, a new Bay Area startup called Redwood Robotics has revealed its plans to build inexpensive arms for personal service robots.” The startup is a jointly ventured by Meka Robotics, Willow Garage, and the famed R&D institute, SRI International.

Meka already produces the A2 Compliant Arm, a lightweight seven degree-of-freedom force controlled arm and the H2 Compliant Hand, both too expensive for Redwood’s “inexpensive arms for personal service robots.” However, the Meka technology is there for Redwood’s taking. Willow Garage develops open source software for robots as well as personal robots like its PR2. SRI International, the famed R&D lab, is quite familiar with robotic arms, having spun off Intuitive Surgical (ISRG) with its now world renowned, robotic surgical arms, which began as a government project at SRI for remote surgery for battlefields. The fingerprints of each organization are evident in Redwood’s website messaging that its robots will be “simple to program, inexpensive, and safe to operate alongside people.”

Edsinger and Brooks’ likeminded vision

There’s also a connection between Redwood and Heartland through the association of Meka’s Aaron Edsinger and Rodney Brooks: Brooks was Edsinger’s PhD advisor at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, when the latter was completing his thesis on robot manipulation in human environments. And they are likeminded in sharing identical visions for robotics. “The real potential of robots in the future,” says Edsinger, “is going to be realized when they can do many types of manual tasks, including those that require interaction with humans.” In early November of 2011, Edsinger incorporated Redwood Robotics in Delaware, and a little after Thanksgiving in the same year, registered the corporation as doing business in California from 1200 Seaport Blvd., Redwood City, CA, hence, Redwood Robotics.

An Apple state of mind

Will Redwood Robotics mirror something of Apple’s success as it takes on one of robotics’ biggest and most elusive challenges? Edsinger, Brooksian tight lipped on specifics, was clearly thinking of the Apple model at the Xconomy event, saying, “There is a broad analogy between robotics and the early days of the computer industry. What happened was that Apple and other companies came along and opened it up. Very few people had access to computation before then. And what we want to see happen is the same thing with robot arms, where now they are in factories, but in the future they will be in people’s homes, in new types of devices with new types of interfaces.”

Eyes on the prize

Robots can, with some difficulty, be endowed with movement, be it bipedal or multipedal ambulation or on wheels or tracks or crawling, swimming or flying. However, once a robot arrives at its destination, what then? That’s precisely where Redwood Robotics is heading. Reaching, grasping, picking things up, lightweight or heavy, and being able to distinguish sizes, shapes and weights, is where the rubber meets the road for the future of robots and their utility to humans.

Separately, the highly competent trio of companies making up the new Redwood brain trust are fabulously inventive; together, through their combined expertise, they have a real shot at profoundly changing a robot’s capabilities.

At the same time, Redwood heralds quite clearly to the rest of the robotics world that the cause that they all serve needs more of such collaborative efforts. That’s how Apple got rolling: gaining insight and courage in an auditorium at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center through the informal meetings of the Homebrew Computer Club (1975-1986). Edsinger is pumped for the challenge. “This is going to be a really exciting opportunity to take a type of arm that we think is going to be really important for the industry moving forward, produce it, commercialize it at low cost, and do great things.”