Un interview avec Bram Vanderborght

Baxter for education: an interview with Bram Vanderborght

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Prof. Dr. ir. Bram Vanderborght, who leads the Robotics & Multibody Mechanics research group at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel with prof Lefeber tells us more about his experience with the collaborative robot Baxter, and how Baxter can be a great pedagogical tool.


Génération Robots : First of all, for all people who don’t know you, could you please tell us more about yourself and your department within university?


Bram Vanderborght : Together with prof Lefeber we lead the Robotics & Multibody Mechanics research group of the Vrije Universiteit Brussel. In 1995 we started with the development and control of compliant actuators for safety and energy efficiency and implemented this in applications for human-robot interaction.

We work mainly in health like assistance and rehabilitation exoskeletons, prostheses and social robots for robot enhanced therapy. But different concepts are also applicable in the manufacturing industry, with the startup of the Flemish research center Flanders Make, now also one of our research priorities.

The VUB Claxxon research group


Génération Robots : What brought you to robotics teaching/research?


Bram Vanderborght : As a child I was always passionated by mechanical engineering and I was building my own remote controlled airplanes and boats. During my master thesis I had the opportunity to work on the bipedal robot Lucy powered by pneumatic muscles. From there my interest in robotics emerged.


Génération Robots : What research are you doing in the field of robotics?


Bram Vanderborght : Our work is concentrated on human-robot interaction to physically and cognitively assist humans instead of replacing them.

Human-robot interaction with Baxter

Since we are in the mechanical engineering department we like to build our own robots and we have many prototypes in our lab. We do this research in strong multidisciplinary teams consisting of psychologists, physiotherapists, sociologists and philosophers.

Recently we founded the Brubotics initiative at the VUB that bundles all relevant research groups both in engineering (robotics, AI, sensors) as social/human sciences.


Génération Robots : According to you, what makes collaborative robotics special?


Bram Vanderborght : Collaborative robots have the opportunity to provide an answer for societal challenges as ageing workforce and to reshore work. Moreover it will not only be part of the Factory of the Future, but will also be part of Products of the Future.

It is very fascinating to see the evolution of robotics in the past decade and I am curious what the future will bring (by creating it).


Génération Robots : Regarding Baxter and its SDK, what criteria made you choose this solution over another?


Bram Vanderborght : Since the actuators of Baxter are serial elastic actuators (so compliant actuators) we can try out several control algorithms on a relative cheap and safe hardware platform. By the integration with ROS (Robot Operating System), we can easily access all relevant parameters required for the control and connect with other devices. I strongly believe in the vision that apps for robots will become important.


Génération Robots : Does Baxter meet your expectations in term of teaching and learning?


Bram Vanderborght : We have only recently received our own Baxter, but the students are very happy with the robot. It is for them a motivation that they can develop programs with a real-life purpose.


Génération Robots : Did you find Baxter easy to get started with?


Bram Vanderborght : Since our post-doc Carlos Rodriguez Guerrero has good experience with ROS, the start was very fluent and we were very well helped by Génération Robots to solve several questions. So I must say it was very easy to get started with. Also on the wiki a rich source of information can be found.


Génération Robots : Did you find Baxter easy to get started with?


Bram Vanderborght : Since our post-doc Carlos Rodriguez Guerrero has good experience with ROS, the start was very fluent and we were very well helped by Génération Robots to solve several questions. So I must say it was very easy to get started with. Also on the wiki a rich source of information can be found.


Génération Robots : Do you find this robot to be a good choice to work on with a group of students?


Bram Vanderborght : We organized a master thesis for the robot last year on the Baxter of our partner Sirris, and now another student is performing his master thesis with the robot. Now that we are building up experience with the robot, we will probably also include it in other courses and more student projects.

Baxter for education


Génération Robots : In your opinion, what are the limitations of Baxter and its SDK? What should be improved in the future?


Bram Vanderborght : One of the limitations is perhaps the lack of general documentation in C++. All the examples available by default are written in python which is a scripted language and therefore not the best for real time or heavy computational applications using frameworks for realtime control such as Orocos for instance.

Nonetheless this is not exactly an issue since the core of Baxter is still ROS and therefore there are easy ways around to find by yourself how to make it work. One of the things that could have an improvement is the simulator as it is still pretty immature and could have a boost in the near future.


Génération Robots : How do you think your students/researchers benefit from it?


Bram Vanderborght : I find it important that students/researchers can work with real hardware since only doing simulations will not confront the students with the challenges of the real physical work. Moreover we want to validate the research with end-users and push our robots outside the lab.


Génération Robots : How would you describe your research project on Baxter Research Robot?


Bram Vanderborght : From the Brussels and Flemish manufacturing industry we see a clear demand to investigate the potential of coworking robots as Baxter to assist workers instead of replacing them. Also technology providers and robot integrators want to explore this new market.

We will work with several industrial, academic partners combined with the research centers iMinds (Claxon Project) and Flanders Make to facilitate the introduction of coworking robots on the manufacturing floor.


Génération Robots : What outcomes do you expect from this research projects?


Bram Vanderborght : We do not only want to develop technological tools enabling HRC, we also want to investigate the social acceptance of the technology by workers and unions.


Génération Robots : Did you create some course work with Baxter, if yes, will you accept to share them?


Bram Vanderborght : The outcome of the first MA1 project (project in 4th engineering year), is available on http://sdk.rethinkrobotics.com/wiki/Baxter_Pick_And_Learn

The Baxter Research Robot and its accessories are available on the Generation Robots website:


Baxter Research Robot


Baxter Research Robot

Electric Parallel Gripper Kit for Baxter Research Robot


Electric Parallel Gripper Kit for Baxter Research Robot

Mobile Pedestal for Baxter Research Robot


Mobile Pedestal for Baxter Research Robot

Baxter Mobility Base


Baxter Mobility Base