Now owned by Google: Atlas from Boston Dynamics (Image: Siu Chiu/Reuters)
So why is Google suddenly so interested in robots? That’s the question everyone’s asking after it emerged this month that the internet giant has quietly amassed a portfolio of eight advanced-robotics firms. Google is describing the venture as partly a long term “moonshot” project – the name given to its more outlandish or ambitious ideas, such as its self-driving car or broadband via high-altitude balloons. But it also says it aims to launch a raft of robotics products in the short term.
Based in the US and Japan, the new acquisitions make diverse products, ranging from walking humanoids, to many-legged, animal-like packhorses for the military, to assembly robots, machine-vision systems and robotic special-effects movie cameras. Are they creating a cloud-powered humanoid who uses Google Glass? A line of robot pets? Or just a more efficient warehouse robot?
Andy Rubin isn’t saying. He runs Google’s new robotics division in Palo Alto, California, and pioneered Google’s Android smartphone platform. He will only say that there will be a clutch of initial products but also that Google has a “10-year vision” of where the company is headed.
The eight robotics companies Google has acquired so far – and we can expect more, says Rubin – include industry mainstay Boston Dynamics, based in Waltham, Massachusetts,which has made a raft of robots for the US Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency. These include the world’s fastest four-legged robot, Cheetah, and Big Dog, a headless all-terrain mule that can carry heavy loads for troops. It also has what are widely regarded as two of the most agile humanoids: the Petman and Atlas droids.
Google’s other acquisitions include Schaft, a Tokyo-based maker of life-sized, high-power humanoid robots, plus Meka and Redwood Robotics, both of San Francisco, which make smaller humanoid bots and industrial robot arms. Google has also bought Industrial Perception of Palo Alto, whose software lends robots precision vision, and another pair of companies in San Francisco: Bot & Dolly and Autofuss, which work together on automated camera movements to create movie motion–effects. Finally, there is robot-wheel-maker Holomni of Mountain View, California.
Google is not alone in its foray into robotics. Amazon last year bought Kiva Systems for $750 million, a maker of wheeled robots that will simplify product picking in its huge warehouses. And Apple is spending $10.5 billion on advanced manufacturing robots.
Fingers in many pies
The mix of technologies that Google has acquired doesn’t point to any one type of robot being developed, says Chris Melhuish, director of the Bristol Robotics Laboratory, UK. “They are buying a lot of underpinning technologies. Buying a humanoid-maker doesn’t mean they’ll make a humanoid. A humanoid is just one form that a robot can take. These technologies could go into anything from a smart bed to a wheeled home-assistant robot for elderly people.”
He says making robots that let firms manufacture or pack different products is a likely avenue for Google in the short term – perhaps producing robots likeBaxter from Boston-based Rethink Robotics.
But Will Jackson of Engineered Arts in Falmouth, UK, which makes a human-sized robot called RoboThespian, thinks Google will use its experience in search engines to allow people to find information faster in shopping malls and airports. “You would never go over and talk to a touchscreen, but if a mechanical person talks to you and makes eye contact and smiles it’s very hard indeed not to talk back. Google knows all about our behaviour and market preferences already. A robot would be a good interface for that information.”
Google’s moves are indicative of how robotics is changing, says Scott Eckert, CEO of Rethink Robotics. “The robotics industry is in the early stages of a transformation from a primarily industrial market to a dynamic technology sector,” he says. “This is an exciting industry with a bright future.”