Google has acquired eight high profile start-up robotics companies in 2013, providing strong evidence of a strategy to create breakthrough applications for robotics over the next decade. This strategy is most likely to concentrate on manufacturing and logistics. Bringing these companies together, Google will need to find synergies between diverse organisations and personalities. This mission is being headed by Andy Rubin, who previously managed the successful Android operating system for mobile devices. Rubin describes Google’s highly ambitious goal of finding technically and economically viable applications for robotics as a “moon shot”: a highly concentrated effort of an integrated team to create landmark achievements in a field. The mission to put a man on the moon is one clear precedent. There are many other possible analogies for Google’s robot “moon shot”.Google’s contribution to the robotics industry to now being compared to the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s (DARPA) pivotal role in establishing the founding technologies of the internet.
Google’s project can also be compared with Atari research lab, formed in the 1970s to generate innovations in computer game and entertainment technologies. (Unfortunately this did not prevent the massive failure of the company in the mid-1980s.) An even less appealing analogy is the Manhattan Project that created the atomic bomb in the 1940s. Considering the role of the US military in funding and fostering robotics research, the parallel is not so far off. Xerox PARC is another corporate that has been highly successful in innovating in the domain of office technologies, but is known most for its failure to transfer research prototypes to viable products.
In expanding Google’s investments in robotics, Rubin will face the challenge of integrating the companies that form Google’s moon shot at Palo Alto, California. What is notable about many of these companies is they are either interdisciplinary in orientation, or highly specialized. Many of the companies began as spin-offs from university robotics research. The companies that had a spin-off culture will need to transition into being part of a large organisation, with the politics that this entails.
So who has Google bought and what do they do?
1. Bot & Dolly – Bot & Dolly is largely a product of the film industry, creating robotic systems to control cameras in movies such as Gravity. This film included sequences that began as computer-generated imagery, which was matched with live action sequences using robotic cameras. In the clip below, robot cameras captured the astronaut’s faces as they spun around in zero gravity. Watch the clip here.
These images were mapped into the computer-generated sequence. Experimenting at the intersections of cinema, robotics and stage magic, Bot & Dolly produced a stunning performance piece called Box. Watch the magic by Box here. Box uses two robots to manipulate screens onto which high definition projectors present geometrical and op-art inspired patterns. A human performer interacts with the screen images, creating a seamless hybrid of multiple disciplines. Fascinating isn’t it? Curious about how it was done? Watch behind the scene moments of the video.
2. Autofuss – Bot & Dolly’s design studio arm Autofuss emphasizes its collaborative approach “colliding visual artists with programmers, engineers with designers, storytellers with illustrators, architects with machinists”. It has produced promotional videos for Google, Microsoft and Adobe.
These promotions make heavy use of robotic cameras, motion design, animation and live action production. Know more about the Autofuss here.
3. Meka Robotics – Meka is another university spin-off company, coming out of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory in 2006. One of their aims is to create highly agile robots that can run quickly over uneven ground. Their flagship bot is the M1 Mobile Manipulator, comprised of a torso, head, arms and hands.
Their goal is to build “human-safe, human-soft, and human scale robot technologies that will enable the robots of tomorrow to work alongside people in the home and the workplace”. Their research encapsulates both dextrous robotic arms and robot faces that are capable of ‘socializing’ with humans. Watch a clip on Meks’s robots.
4. Holomni – Holomni is a design firm that specializes in highly controllable caster wheels that can position robots with 360 degree precision. Such a specialized company is likely to produce devices that slot well into any robot that needs precise mobility. These bots can dance too. Watch them here.
Holomni are the most mysterious of the eight, with their website (essentially a template) only revealing that they build “powered caster modules” to create “holonomic omnidirectional vehicles”, essentially meaning very manoeuvrable robots. As robotic skills go, this is essential for managing large warehouses and Holomni’s unnamed creations sound similar to the Kiva robots used by Amazon.
5. Redwood Robotics – Redwood Robotics is a Silicon Valley company specializing in robotics arms. It is a 2012 spin-off from Meka Robotics, Willow Garage and SRI International, and aims to create a “new generation arm” for robots that does for robotics what the Apple II did for computers: get the hardware out of factories and into homes.
Like Holomni, their strategy is the concentrate on one particular component that can be used in a variety of robot applications. Whether Google will pursue this goal of providing wheels and arms to the wider industry, or not, it not yet clear. Their most notable success has been pioneering the uses of robots in surgery.
6. Industrial Perception – A spin-off from s high profile robotics company,Willow Garage, Industrial Perception Inc produces 3D visual perception systems for applications such as unloading trucks and feeding parts. Watch one of their creations in action.
They aimed to produce product-level robots that could work at a level and speed comparable to humans unloading trucks. Industrial Perception’s goals seem in line with Google’s goals with their move into robotics.
7. Boston Dynamics – Boston Dynamics has achieved a high profile for its robotics projects by posting popular videos of its intimidating robots BigDog, weaponized BigDog, Cheetah, Atlas, and Spot. Their projects have been funded by the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). Boston Dynamics was founded in 1992 by Marc Raibert, a former professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
8. Schaft – Schaft is a Japanese engineering company that spun off from the University of Tokyo. It won the DARPA Robotics Challenge, a competition for robotic performance funded and supported by DARPA.
The goal of the competition was to complete tasks to a rescue robot that could drive a vehicle, walk on uneven ground, walk up an industrial ladder, clear debris, open a door, cut through a wall, open a valve and use a hose. The only non-US competitor, Schaft’s robot scored 27 out of 32 points and beat the Boston Dynamics team by some margin. Watch the the bot in action.
The Googlefication of robotics research is likely to represent something of a cultural shift for the organisations and employees involved. However, there are common stories for many of the companies. The grounding of much of the research in universities is one clear shared experience. Each of the companies above has highly specialized applications and well-formed visions. Google wisely selected companies on the basis of some firm instrumental orientation and corporate vision. In spite of the growing investments in robotics, longer term questions about the future models for robotics in everyday life remain open. How key components — from machine vision to directional wheels, from automated cameras to humanoid rescue robots — might combine into transformative applications is yet to be seen. Also yet to be known is the impact of Google’s taking cream from the top of a still-young robotics industry.
So how good is Google’s robot arsenal now? Watch yourself.
Latest updates about Google’s famous robot, Atlas. It is even more human now:
Atlas, the humanoid robot created by Boston Dynamics, can open doors, balance while walking through the snow, place objects on a shelf and pick itself up after being knocked down. The new version of Atlas is smaller and more nimble than its predecessor. At 5-feet, 9-inches tall and 180 pounds it’s about 7 inches shorter and 120 pounds lighter than the first version. It’s fully mobile too — the previous version had to be tethered to a computer.
Atlas was created to perform disaster recovery in places unsafe for humans, such as damaged nuclear power plants. The robot made its debut in 2013 during a competition held by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. The new version of Atlas is a result of seven computer research teams from around the world who were contracted to develop software to give Atlas a better brain. Atlas uses sensors embedded in its body and legs to keep its balance. Lasers in its head help Atlas sense and avoid obstacles, navigate, assess terrain and move objects.
With hydraulically-operated joints, Atlas can scan its surroundings and maneuver through complex environments: walking, climbing stairs and dodging debris. In this YouTube video, a Boston Dynamics employee can be seen moving a box away from Atlas with a hockey stick. Atlas then quickly adjusts and moves to pick it up. Atlas also gets knocked down from behind — and quickly does a push-up to get back on its feet.
Boston Dynamics has built a strong reputation for its heavy-duty robots that can run faster than Usain Bolt, climb walls like a gecko and jump as high as 30 feet. It has close ties with the U.S. military.
The company made waves a year ago when it debuted “Spot,” a four-legged robot that walks like a dog. After Boston Dynamics employees repeatedly kicked Spot in a YouTube video, PETA weighed in, saying that it believed the video was inappropriate. Alphabet has amassed a large collection of robotics companies over the years, though Boston Dynamics is by far the biggest. Alphabet continues to invest in products and technologies that it believe will be splashy and profitable in the future.
How can Google put the robots acquired by it to commercial use?
1. The big driver would be e-commerce. Today, most people go straight to Amazon for online purchases, which implies that Google is losing advertising revenue to Amazon. Google should engage in e-commerce services such as Google Express that can get more revenue back. To make it economically tractable, you would like to have robots for loading/unloading trucks and for pick up and packaging of material for shipping. Expertise from Industrial Perception and Meka are clear candidates for this.
2. Google has spent serious money on small series electronics manufacturing for Google Glass, phones, and wearable devices. Having their own small series manufacturing capability would be a major cost reduction for them.
3. New types of home robots have a lot of potential to generate new data about use patterns for occupants of homes that will allow companies to build new services, help homeowners save electricity, and do certain functions (e.g. vacuuming) when no one is around, and other functions when people are around.
4. Boston Dynamics’ experience with robots that can traverse any terrain could allow Google StreetView/mapping of any area on earth, not only the areas where you can drive a vehicle. The BD robots are great platforms for automated mapping and opens up more possibilities for [geographic information system] services. Especially if it’s possible to combine these applications with autonomous capabilities developed at Schaft.”