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Boston Dynamics BigDog robots operating under remote control.

Boston Dynamics BigDog robots trot around under remote control.

Google is Buying Robot Companies?

Google has quietly made several robotics acquisitions this year. Most recently they purchased Boston Dynamics, maker of the well known BigDog and other highly mobile robots.

The Internet is abuzz with conjecture about what Andy Rubin, who is heading up Big G’s robotics program, is planning. Rubin previously headed up Google’s Android division.

On Dec. 4th, Google CEO Larry Page posted on his Google Plus profile, “I am excited about Andy Rubin’s next project. His last big bet, Android, started off as a crazy idea that ended up putting a supercomputer in hundreds of millions of pockets. It is still very early days for this, but I can’t wait to see the progress.”

To try to glean where Google might be headed, let’s take a closer look at what they’ve acquired.

What Hast Google Bought?

Meka isn't talking.

Meka isn’t talking.

Information is limited. Many of the acquired companies’ websites are unavailable except for the front page.

Meka’s website is an example: “We have been acquired by Google and are busy building the robot revolution. Please come again.”

Schaft, Inc.

Kawada industries'; HRP-2 Photo: cc by Morio

Kawada’s HRP-2
(cc Morio)

Schaft, Inc. is a Japanese company. Their entry into DARPA’s Robotics Challenge in 2012 stated that they would create “an Intelligent Robot Kernel in which it will combine the necessary software modules for recognition, planning, motion generation, motion control and a user interface.”

Schaft’s entry was based on a modified version of the humanoid HRP-2 robot by Kawada Industries.

Industrial Perception

Industrial Perception Inc. (IPI) was founded by two members of the perception group at Willow Garage, a company focused on personal robotics.
IPI’s Erin Rapacki wrote on IEEE Spectrum‘s blog in Jan. 2013 about computer vision being applied to industrial automation.

IPI brought together technologies like 3D vision and motion planning to enable industrial robots to pick and manipulate unsorted objects better than ever before.

Redwood Robotics

Redwood Robotics is a joint venture between Meka Robotics, Willow Garage, and SRI International. SRI’s website states that Redwood Robotics “will produce a new generation of robot arms that are simple to program, inexpensive, and safe to operate alongside people.”

Meka Robotics

Meka Robotics was created by two engineers from the MIT Computer Science and AI Lab. They have produced the Mobile Manipulator and Humanoid Head robots shown in the video below.

Meka also partnered with Willow Garage and SRI to found Redwood Robotics, discussed above.

Holomni

Holomni produces omni-directional wheels for robotic applications. The San Franscisco based company was owned by former Willow Garage Designer Bob Holmberg.

Bot & Dolly

Bot & Dolly is one of the few acquired companies that still seems to have their website intact. Perhaps that is because they are a fairly high profile company that works with the film industry. They recently contributed their expertise to help create the illusion of weightlessness in the film, Gravity. The video below was produced to demonstrate their capabilities.

Bot & Dolly’s IRIS and SCOUT robotic arms allow a director to position the camera, lights and other objects so that shots can be executed quickly and repeatably.

AutoFuss

While they don’t make robots, Bot & Dolly’s sister company Autofuss was also acquired. Autofuss provides design and production services. Their Facebook page says they are “an interdisciplinary design studio, focusing on motion design, animation and live action production.”

Boston Dynamics

Many robotics enthusiasts, as well as military robot enthusiasts and opponents are familiar with Boston Dynamics. Their highly mobile robots move with life-like reactions. Although much of their R&D has been directed toward military applications, the New York Times reported that Google “… did not plan to move toward becoming a military contractor on its own.”

Possible directions

If those are the components of Google’s plan, what will the result look like? Here are a few possibilities.

Online Shopping

Google shopping is a nice way to search for your niece’s birthday present, but Google themselves don’t sell any of those products. With Amazon recently sharing their plans to launch a new aerial drone delivery service called Prime Air, many have pointed out that perhaps Google plans to develop their own robotic delivery service. I think it will be a long while before you see hulking large robots trotting down the street with a big Google logo affixed, delivering packages.

Here’s a different angle. You may not know it, but Amazon.com has moved into big data with their Amazon Web Services. Perhaps Google plans repay this intrusion into data warehousing by moving into online shopping. If they deployed highly automated warehouses and shipping facilities, Google could quickly build capability to rival Amazon and other online stores.

Entertainment

The inclusion of Bot & Dolly and Autofuss makes one wonder if Google plans to launch entertainment related services or products. Online video streaming services like Netflix and Hulu, not to mention Amazon again, represent a lot of online data storage. Hulu has even begun producing their own original shows. Google owns YouTube, of course, but perhaps they want a bigger piece of the action.

This would stitch together not only Google’s new acquisitions, but also leverage Google’s huge data storage and streaming video capabilities.

Map and Navigation Data

Another Google acquisition earlier this year was the Waze (pronounced “ways”). Waze is a GPS based mapping service that integrates social media. Subscribers can share information on traffic, accidents and road hazards, and speed traps.

Perhaps Google plans to automate the data collection for their mapping software by having Google robotic cars travel the roads armed with Bot & Dolly camera arms and report map updates through Waze.

Or Not

Maybe I’m way off base. Where do you think Google is going with this? Write in your comments below.

What’s it Mean for Makers?

It’s hard to say what Google’s robotics shopping spree will mean for makers. However, since I’m already out on a limb with all this conjecture, I might as well bounce up and down a bit.

Open Systems Integration

Google made one other small acquisition, back in May 2012. They hired Ken Conley of Willow Garage, the co-founder and platform manager for the open source Robot Operation System (ROS). Before that, Google had worked with Willow Garage to create a Java implementation of ROS, which can run on their Android platform.

So now we have the man behind Android and the man behind ROS working at the same company. Should Google decide to base their robotic development on the ROS framework, there’s potential for open integration. Which is perfect for hackers and makers who want to build off of whatever Google creates.

Imagine an open source market for apps that integrate in Google’s shopping, entertainment, or navigation systems.

Jobs

Google’s move into robotics could open up job opportunities. Not just at Google; if they create some new and under-explored field of enterprise, then there will be competitors and perhaps an ecosystem of suppliers.

More job opportunities could help more makers transition to pro.

More Acquisitions

Is Google all done buying robotics companies, or are there more to come? Could any of the maker startups that that we’re so proud of as a community be next? 3D Robotics? OpenROV? Who knows?

Andrew Terranova

Andrew Terranova is an electrical engineer, writer and an electronics and robotics hobbyist. He is an active member of the Let’s Make Robots community, and handles public relations for the site.
Andrew has created and curated robotics exhibits for the Children’s Museum of Somerset County, NJ and taught robotics classes for the Kaleidoscope Learning Center in Blairstown, NJ and for a public primary school. Andrew is always looking for ways to engage makers and educators.


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