Jamie Morton

Jamie Morton is science reporter at the NZ Herald.

Baxter the robot rolls on in

Lost In Space lookalike is a big step for NZ, says expert, but $30k device can't do the dishes.

The humanoid Baxter Research Robot.
The humanoid Baxter Research Robot.

A humanoid robot, which resembles the classic character from Lost in Space, has become the first of its kind to hit the New Zealand market.

But the age of robots washing our dishes, emptying our rubbish and putting the kids to bed is still the stuff of science fiction, an expert says.

American company Rethink Robotics says its Baxter Research Robot, which has long flexible arms and a screen for a face, is going on sale in New Zealand and Australia.

Baxter, previously available only in the US, Europe and Japan is being distributed and supported through an Australian supplier.

It has an open source platform, allowing its users to customise it for a range of uses.

"It allows researchers to build a wide array of custom applications, share innovations and collaborate on ideas to really push New Zealand's robotics innovation to the next level," said Rethink Robotics' academic and research product manager, Brian Benoit.

Universities and research and development labs at some US companies are using the newly-launched robot for simple "pick and place" operations, handling items and moving them about.

Auckland University robot expert Dr Bruce MacDonald said people could buy humanoid robots overseas, but would not have ongoing technical support for them.

Dr MacDonald said Baxter's price, of around $30,000, was much cheaper than an industrial robot arm.

"It's a big step - a few years ago, you would have paid several times that price for something like Baxter, but we need another step before people are going to shell out money," he said.

"The problem is, you still need to programme the task you want."

In the short-term, he expected to see robots used more in industrial and healthcare settings, but as for domestic robots for the household, there was still a "fair way to go".

"There are a large number of companies trying to do that and haven't succeeded yet, but I think it's ready for that."

Robot world

* The humanoid Baxter Research Robot, designed by American company Rethink Robotics, is now available to New Zealand buyers and is ideally suited as a research assistant in the lab. It has torque, position and velocity sensing and control on each of its joints.

* The PaPeRo (partner type personal robot), developed by Japan's NEC Corporation, has a facial recognition system and can interact with people. Ask it about the weather, and it will connect to the internet and obtain a weather report.

* Yujin Robot's iRobiQ can appear happy, surprised, neutral, disappointed or shy, can dodge obstacles and is smart enough to hold a conversation.

- NZ Herald

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