The robotic revolution is very often less about replacing human workers than finding ways of working alongside them. That means being as flexible at doing tasks as humans, as well as being able to work with all the jostling and chaos that people take for granted. Rethink Robotics’ new Robot Positioning System lets the Baxter robot do factory work without being bolted to the floor, adjusting itself as it endures random bumps.

Robots love order. They work best when their environment is predictable. When it comes to manufacturing robots, they also work best, and are safest to be around, when they’re bolted down and surrounded by cages that keep out the unwary. For over half a century, that’s worked, but it also negates many of the strengths of robots by cutting them off from human workers and keeping them stuck in place like some kind of over-elaborate machine lathe. Rethink’s Robot Positioning System aims at mixing robots and people by making robots more flexible, better able to shift from job to job, and handle the occasional bump and jostle.

The Robot Positioning System is part of the Intera 3.1 Rethink software upgrade and is designed to work with the Baxter general purpose robot; an inexpensive industrial robot that’s capable of learning new tasks by being guided by a human operator without the need for special coding or control systems, and has multiple sensors and safety systems that allow it to operate around humans.

The Robot Positioning System’s purpose is to make industrial robots more mobile; not in the sense of moving about the floor under their own power, but in the sense of making them easy to shift from one task to another without having to re-tool the entire line. Using Baxter’s learning ability, it can be taken from one job, moved to another station, and taught to carry out its new task.

The clever bit is that the Robot Positioning System comes with sets of markers called “Landmarks.” These are code-marked cards that tell the robot where it’s supposed to be in relation to its work station. The Landmarks allow Baxter to use its vision system to figure out where it’s supposed to be. If it gets bumped or otherwise moved, the positioning system allows the robot to take the shift into account by adjusting its movements. In addition, the system makes it easier for operators to quickly move Baxter back into position if it gets shifted too far, or to set it up at multiple stations, taking into account up to 20 Landmarks

"Manufacturing robots have always been caged, not only to protect the workers around them from harm, but also to protect their precisely configured environments from being disrupted by those same workers," says Scott Eckert, CEO at Rethink Robotics. "With Baxter, we brought the manufacturing robot out of its cage by making it safe enough to work next to people; and now, we've made it safe for the robot to work effectively in real-world conditions as well, by allowing it to adapt to everyday variations that people naturally produce."

The video below shows the Robot Positioning System in action.

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