Skip navigation
Interview With The Creators Of Baxter - Rethink Robotics

Interview With The Creators Of Baxter - Rethink Robotics

Rethink Robotics has a neat robot called Baxter (Fig. 1) that could change the way production lines are set up. It uses a behavior-based approach to its internal programming and in can use a by-example user programming process.

I talked with Mitch Rosenberg, VP Marketing and Product Management at Rethink Robotics, about Baxter. Also check out some Engineering TV video interviews we did with Rethink Robotics at the end of this article.

Baxter is a behavior-based robot from Rethink Robotics that will change the way production lines work.

Wong: How did Rethink Robotics get started?

Rethink: Rethink Robotics was founded in 2008 by Rodney Brooks, the co-founder of iRobot and the former director of the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab. Based in Boston’s Innovation District, Rethink Robotics is funded by Charles River Ventures, Highland Capital Partners, Sigma Partners, Draper Fisher Jurvetson and Bezos Expeditions.

Baxter is the culmination of a lot of hard work and the vision of many people.  The original idea for Baxter came from Rodney who saw an opportunity to use his unique behavior-based robotics architecture to make American manufacturing more competitive.  Since then, a team of experts have been working together to bring Baxter to fruition.   

Wong: What is Baxter and how does it differ from conventional robots?

Rethink: Baxter is a totally new kind of robot:  it is a robot with common sense, so it knows what you want and does what you expect.  Baxter is aware of its surroundings and can adapt as needed. One particularly important example of its common sense is its awareness of and adaptation to humans in its environment—this makes it safe to work alongside humans.  Lastly, it can be trained just as you would teach a person with a demonstration, no software programming expertise required, in 10-15 minutes.

Unlike traditional industrial robots, Baxter is an adaptive manufacturing robot. It contains cameras, sensors and sophisticated software that enable it to “see” objects, “feel” forces and “understand” tasks. The result is a robot that automatically adapts to changing environments.

Baxter is also significantly less expensive than traditional industrial robots—and much easier to deploy. It can be up and running in under an hour. Train it like you would any other worker – through demonstration. No software engineering or teaching pendant required.

For more on how Baxter is different, please see here:

Wong: How does someone program Baxter?

Rethink: Baxter is designed to reduce cost of ownership, not just cost of acquisition. No custom application code is required to get it started. So no costly software or manufacturing engineers are required to program it. Rather, Baxter can be “taught” via a graphical user interface and through direct manipulation of its robot arms. That means non-technical, hourly workers can train and retrain it right on the line.

Wong: Is it safe to work around Baxter? It is rather large.

Rethink: Yes, Baxter was designed specifically to be safe working side-by-side with humans.  Baxter doesn’t have any sharp edges and its joints are compliant and designed to “give” on impact.  The sensors that are part of Baxter’s design means it can detect when people are within contact distance and will slow down and/or stop.  Baxter doesn’t need to be caged-off like most industrial robots.

Wong: What features of Baxter are not readily apparent?

Rethink: There are many! Here’s a list of some of the most important:

  • Baxter contains cameras and sensors that are not immediately noticeable. 
  • Baxter’s face doubles as the user interface alongside the navigator buttons on Baxter’s arm
  • Baxter has a 360 degree sonar and front camera for human presence detection.
  • It has force sensing and force control at each joint.
  • Baxter automatically detects typical manufacturing environments such as table heights and conveyor speeds without any user programming

Wong: Where do you expect Baxter to be used?

Rethink: Baxter is ideal for material handling, especially in manufacturing plants of all sizes.  It can move objects from one location to another, count and coordinate its movements with other machines. Some example tasks include syringe packaging into bags by quantity and sorting based on external visual inspection systems. Very soon, Baxter will increase its speed, be able to push objects and buttons as well as respond to and signal external triggers.  This will allow Baxter to tend machines and coordinate precise placement.

Wong: What are the advantages of behavior-based programming?

Rethink: Baxter’s behavior-based robotic architecture makes it possible to adapt to its environment without having to maintain a complex, slow, and costly internal model.  Baxter can automatically react to environmental changes and alter its behavior to account for unexpected events—so it can continue to work productively after missing a pick-up or dropping a part. It can also adjust to changes in surface heights without being told.

This “common sense” is what makes Baxter an invaluable asset, and informs a suite of safety features that make it perfectly safe to work around.

Wong: How does Baxter's behaviors work with its more complex sensors such as its cameras?

Rethink: Using its cameras, Baxter can visually detect and distinguish parts and objects that it needs to move and instantly adapt to variations in part placement and conveyor speed. 

Wong: What are some new features we might see in Baxter in the future? Might we see a one-armed Baxter?

Rethink: The day you buy the robot is the day that it’ll perform the least well. Over time, a Company’s investment in Baxter will become more and more valuable because Rethink will continue to update its software with new features and capabilities. Rethink will release a software development kit (SDK) later this year that will let others modify Baxter’s capabilities. There will also be a variety of new third-party grippers for handling parts with different shapes.


Behavior-Based Programming of the Baxter Robotic Platform at Rethink Robotics - RoboBusiness 2012

Bill Wong of Electronic Design magazine talks to Mike Bugda, Product Manager at Rethink Robotics about the concept of behavior-based programming and how it’s being used in the Baxter robotic platform.

Hide comments


  • Allowed HTML tags: <em> <strong> <blockquote> <br> <p>

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.