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Boston Business Journal

Barrett links with UMass for 'human-like' robots

By Rex Crum

CAMBRIDGE-Mention robots to the average person and what you'll often get are Hollywood images of hyper-intelligent androids such as C3PO and R2D2 from "Star Wars" or the weapon-toting human-destroying "Terminator."

But those types of robots are fantasies. The reality of robotics is years away from creating a robot that mirrors human characteristics as closely as the celluloid versions.

However, at Barrett Technology Inc., work is being done in conjunction with the University of Massachusetts at Amherst that could soon lead to the production of a robot that will be able to actually learn from its environment and react accordingly to various stimuli.

"Traditional robots have been a one-way device. They don't tell you much feedback and you can't do a lot with what they give you," explained William Townsend, chief executive officer and president of the Cambridge-based Barrett. "Our feeling was that we could make something more responsive."

What Townsend and Barrett came up with are three different robotic "body parts" - the BarrettArm (WAM), BarrettWrist and BarrettHand. The robotic limbs incorporate technology sensors, known as "haptic" sensors, which, in addition to telling the robot what to do, also allow the robot to program itself so it can respond to and learn from various situations. The products try to simulate and understand the human infant learning process.

Townsend said the company's products vary in price. The BarrettArm, its main robotic appendage, closely resembles its human counterpart. The arm has a shoulder that operates on a rotating gear mechanism, and then extends along where a human bicep would be to an elbow and on to a wrist where Barrett's three fingered hand can be attached. The entire arm apparatus is about three feet long and costs about $150,000. The robotic products are now being used in auto assembly lines and in some medical applications.

According to figures from the Ann Arbor, Mich.-based Robotic Industries Association, the market for robotics is increasing after several poor quarters. For the first nine months of 1998, the RIA estimates that robotic orders were down 12 percent from 1997.

However, during the third quarter of 1998, about 3,000 robots, valued at nearly $258 million, were sold nationwide, and the industry is expecting to do more than $1 billion in sales for the year, according to the association.

Donald Vincent, executive vice president of the RIA, said much of the industry's slump was due to uncertain financial conditions stemming from market turbulence in Asia. Vincent said he is hopeful the industry is headed for a rebound.

"Now that there is less concern about a worldwide financial meltdown, we hope to see the industry resume growth that led to new order gains in 1992 to 1997," Vincent said.

That's good news for privately held Barrett, which was founded about 10 years ago when it was spun out from Barrett Communications Inc., a graphic design company run by Townsend's wife, Julie. Barrett Technology was begun with robotics work that Townsend started while working on his Ph.D at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. Townsend completed his Ph.D in 1988.

Originally financed by Townsend, Barrett has received additional funding through about $1.5 million in federal Small Business Innovation Research Awards. Townsend said Barrett will probably look to complete its first round of venture funding in 1999.

Townsend said the company will report net income of about $100,000 on revenue of about $1 million in 1998, uup from $450,000 in sales for 1997.

"It's one of those areas that's academically stimulating," Townsend said. "It's like a three-legged chair that combines mechanics, electronics and software." Townsend said that until a few years ago, the basic view of robots was that they were good at doing certain things, but terrible for doing many different things.

Safety was also a major concern, especially in factories which use large, heavy robots that have been programmed for repetitive tasks. These robots often don't know how to respond to situations such as when an item is not in the correct position to be picked up or if a person gets in the way of the robot's range of motion.

The work with UMass-Amherst involves using Barrett's robotic arms and hands to simulate and understand infant learning. The research is based on studies of how babies learn and respond to their natural environment and how the human nervous system learns and transmits signals for completing body movement and actions.

Roderic Grupen, a UMass professor who is heading the robotic learning project, said applying the infant learning process to robots is more appropriate than it my seem. Grupen said looking at how they respond both visually and intuitively to situations can give some foundation to building response systems in robots.

"All sensations give an infant some sense of the space around it. Infants come with a great deal of motor structure and they have to find out how to use it in the real world," Gurpen said. "By studying this, we think we can come up with a program that will help (robots) develop on their own."

Among the businesses most suited to robotics use are many of the so-called "heavy" industries, including assembly line work in the automotive indstry and the removal and handling of hazardous materials.

Townsend is hopeful the work Barrett is doing with UMass could lead to an upswing in the robotics market, which he said is just now coming around after a downturn in the late 1980's and early 1990's.

"Some say robotics are a failure. But we're at a stage where people are starting to wake up and say, 'Wait, there is some incredible stuff out there,'" he said.

Pulblish Date: December 25-31, 1998

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