Robotics startup building bones and muscles of humanoid

Modbot uses a common joint to power its different modules

San Francisco startup Modbot is designing industrial and hobby robots that piece together like Legos.

The main component of the system is a motorized joint that connects the robot. The joint includes smartphone-like sensors and a harmonic drive -- a special type of gear -- powered by a DC motor.

The Modbot team had one prototype robot at its shared office space in San Francisco. It was a simple arm with a jaw on the end that could be used for a variety of pick-and-place scenarios. The arm used three of the motorized joints with one that was dedicated to opening and closing the jaw.

See Modbot in action.

The first target market for Modbot is the industrial domain.

"It allows us to scale out so that we can have high volume to help us hit the low price point," said Daniel Pizzata co-founder of Modbot.

Typically robots like it might cost about $25,000, but the modular nature of this new robot could cut that price to $2,500, according to Adam Ellison, the other co-founder of the company.

He said because the same joint is used to connect all of modules, the cost to produce the robot can be kept low.

"Inside the servomotor itself are a couple of technologies that use consumerized technology; for example sensors that are in smartphones," Ellison said.

After the industrial market comes the maker community, according to Pizzata.

A simple smartphone application controls the robot, but Pizzata hopes that with incentives the maker community could perfect it. Then, he said, the team could bring the improved application back into the industrial community.

The early prototype of the robot was very basic. It moved using keyframes, which means the operator sets the start and end point of a movement and the software extrapolates the movement in between. The robot wasn't precise and seemed buggy, but the team already knew more worked needed to be done.

Pizzata and Ellison have an aggressive timeline for Modbot. They're hoping to have a commercialized product by the end of 2015 and would like to have an entire line of modular robots by the end of 2016.

Nick Barber covers general technology news in both text and video for IDG News Service. E-mail him at Nick_Barber@idg.com and follow him on Twitter at @nickjb.

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