The X-Series Actuator doesnt look like much. Actually, if Im being honest, it kind of looks like a red metal scotch tape dispenser with ribbed sides and a couple of ethernet ports. The product is scattered all over HEBIs one-room Pittsburgh office in various states of disarray. The palm-sized metal component is the startups primary product its entire reason for existing, really. The actuators unassuming profile hides a lot of impressive technology that has helped make the three-year-old company a rising star in the citys bustling robotics startup community.
Its capabilities come into clearer focus as you look around the room at a number of wildly diverse robots that use the little red actuator as a sort of connective tissue a sort of robotic knee or elbow joint. Theres a grasping arm, a milling machine and a few other half-concocted builds that look like robotic rejects from the Island of Misfit Toys.
Co-founder Dave Rollinson introduces us to Igor, a strange and skinny robot that balances on two wheels like a Segway. On top of its square frame are a pair of long arms that arc down in an L-shape, each with a circular paddle for hands. With very light controls, the robot can clasp and pick up objects. Its not the most graceful robot weve seen on our three-day trip to the City of Bridges, but its a perfect example of how the companys product can be used to quickly piece together a complex robotic prototype. Its kind of like an Erector Set for grownups with computer science degrees.
A lot people think that its just motors and gears, says Rollinson. But theres a lot more required to do it. There are a lot of sensors and a lot of embedded control to make the joint go where you want it to. The key thing that we build into all of our parts is the ability to control force.
The company, like most of Pittsburghs thriving robotics community, began life at nearby Carnegie Mellon. The actuator has its origins in CMUs snake robot, a modular mechanical serpent thats proven to be one of the schools most enduring projects. In fact, we first looked at the bot back in 2008, when it was still in its earliest stages.
Since then, its proven a diverse and robust project though, even with the universitys aggressive approach to spinning off startups, it hasnt been easy to monetize. The nascent company flirted with the idea of positioning it as a search and rescue robot, touting its ability to squeeze into pipes and other tight spaces. Ultimately, however, it was the snakes parts that gave rise to HEBI.
We were making these snakes that were made up of a bunch of different modules that were chained up together, says Rollinson, who, along with the rest of the founding team was a member of the schools Biorobotics lab.We realized what we had was the building blocks of a custom system. We decided to make a company dedicated to making building these custom robots as easy as playing with LEGO.
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The modules are assembled and tested by HEBIs eight-person staff. Demand is still manageable, but the companys LEGO-like approach to robot building has made it a hit in Pittsburghs tight-knit robotics community. The sophisticated underlying technologies could eventually wind up in industrial robots, which would benefit from their ability to control force, making it safer for them to interact with factory workers. In the meantime, however, the X-Series is primarily finding success as a prototyping tool.
For now, the companys model is still pretty limited. The companys limited online distribution model is primarily aimed at startups, universities and research facilities. As cool as it would be to build your own robot at home, youre not going to be able to go and pick up the actuator at a Best Buy like a Arduino board any time soon. The companys still limited by size and the product is probably cost prohibitive for your run of the mill maker. If youre looking to mock up a prototype of a robot for future product, HEBIs offering may be right up your alley.
p class=”p1″>If someone is trying to make a robot to walk old people through a nursing home or something, they may build prototype systems and get things up and running real quickly, says Rollinson. Were creating the tools that people will build on top of. So if there is an application that really slots on top of our focus and vision, we will pursue an actual system, but right now were focused on giving the right set of tools to help other people level up.
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