Redwood Robotics Aims to Build Next Generation of Robot Arms

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 joint venture between San Francisco-based Meka Robotics, Menlo Park, CA-based Willow Garage, and the famed R&D institute SRI International.

Meka Robotics co-founder Aaron Edsinger, who will lead the new venture, gave initial details about the company in a talk yesterday at Xconomy’s forum on The Future of Robotics in Silicon Valley and Beyond, which was hosted by SRI.

Redwood Robotics’ goal is to design, build, and market robot arms that can be easily and cheaply incorporated into robots built by other companies for home or workplace use. Companies like Meka and Willow Garage have built increasingly complex arms equipped with sophisticated sensors and and force-controlled actuators. But up to now, such devices have been expensive and difficult to program. Meka’s own A2 Compliant Arm (pictured above) is so costly that it’s generally only used by industrial or academic research labs. Redwood’s aim is to bring down the costs of advanced robotic arms, allowing other companies to make fuller robots that are affordable enough to spread to the consumer market—perhaps as quickly as personal computers did in the 1980s and `90s.

Aaron Edsinger announcing Redwood Robotics at Xconomy's May 3 Forum on The Future of Robotics in Silicon Valley. Photo by Scott Bramwell.

“There is a broad analogy between robotics and the early days of the computer industry,” Edsinger said at Xconomy’s event. “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.”

Edsinger isn’t yet sharing Redwood’s detailed product plans. “We are going to stay a little bit tight-lipped about what the company is really doing,” he said. “But for now what I will say is that we want to build arms for the emerging personal-service robotics market. We want to create product solutions for integrators, developers, and enterprise customers. And we want to build the next generation of robot arms and we want to make them widely available. So we they will be simple to program, they will be inexpensive, and they will take their place alongside people.”

Redwood Robotics could emerge as a competitor for Heartland Robotics, the Boston startup founded by MIT roboticist Rod Brooks and funded with $32 million by a cadre of top venture firms. Heartland hasn’t yet rolled out a commercial product, but says its goal is “to introduce robots into places that have not been automated before, making manufacturers more efficient, their workers more productive, and keeping jobs from migrating to low-cost regions.”

Unsurprisingly, given that the community of robotics entrepreneurs is still fairly small, there’s a genetic connection between the two companies: Brooks was Edsinger’s PhD advisor at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory in the early 2000s, when he was completing his thesis on robot manipulation in human environments.

Edsinger said robot arms have always been his passion, and that Redwood Robotics represents a step toward democratizing the technology. “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,” he said.

Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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