Several months ago we spent some time discussing the reality that robotics was beginning to achieve levels of success we once considered Star Wars material. In fact, as shown in our article, Star Wars Becomes Real as the World's Fastest Robot Hits the Road, the company behind the robotics capabilities - Boston Dynamics - has accomplished some truly remarkable things.
But as of yesterday the company has accomplished one thing perhaps even greater to date than its robotics accomplishments. It has managed to have itself acquired by Google. Deal details were not provided and we may have to scour financial filings to eventually determine what the likely price tag was.
Boston Dynamics isn't a toy shop. Based in Waltham, MA and having all sorts of access to very bright young people, the company has built serious robotic technology and conducted serious robotics research for the military and through funding from DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency). It was founded back in 1992 by Dr. Marc Raibert, who traces his roots to (where else?) MIT. The company has long focused on research and development. It is not a commercial operation and we are not aware that Boston Dynamics has ever considered selling any of its robots into commercial markets.
Our article shows off just one of the many amazing robots it has built - we recommend scoping out the video provided in that article to get a sense of their accomplishments - they are significant. The company also has a penchant for interestingly descriptive names - Cheetah, WildCat (the one covered in our article and shown below), Atlas and BigDog come to mind. The names tend to relate to what the robots can accomplish.
One of the key things that Boston Dynamics researches is the ability for its robots to live within the terrain they are meant to inhabit. In the video shown in our other article, for example, the key issue is the ability to run at enormous speed more or less in an open environment. One of the key things required here is the ability for the robot to recover from a fast-paced fall. This is something enormously difficult to execute and yet the video shows exactly this ability. Other robots can climb, walk over all sorts of crazy terrain challenges and the company even has one of its robots running at enormous speed on a treadmill.
Perhaps the first thing one thinks about when considering Google on this front is that Google is clearly digging deep into remote controlled technology. Obviously we're referring here to self-driving cars, but Google is much more deeply into robotics than one might otherwise think. To begin with, it has now become common knowledge that former Android head honcho Andy Rubin - who you may recall was shifted out of that role soon after Larry Page stepped up to the CEO role - now leads Google's robotics efforts.
This is no different than Sergey Brin nominally heading up Google Glass, but it is a huge name behind technology that is likely to become increasingly important to Google over time. It is also generally not known that over the last year or so Google has picked up seven other smaller robotics companies. Clearly there is something afoot here that goes deeper than what we can currently discern. Nor is Google ready to spend time talking about it. Page noted the following when he announced the Android leadership changes:
"Andy's decided it's time to hand over the reins and start a new chapter at Google. Andy, more moonshots, please," said CEO Larry Page.
That is certainly an interesting choice of word - "moonshots" - when related to robotics! Is there a project to the moon perhaps? With Google you certainly cannot rule it out. Having Rubin in charge of Google's robotics efforts and acquiring eight robotics companies clearly suggests that it is more than just a throw away Google Labs effort. Of course robotics lends itself to numerous and perhaps less lofty efforts as well that range from developing additional automated car capabilities to robots running around the enterprise, driving warehouse trucks, operating in dangerous crisis zones and, well…you get the picture.
There is of course the relationship between Boston Dynamics and the military. What will happen there? Google has said that as part of the deal to acquire the company it would continue to honor existing contracts, but beyond that the emphasis will no doubt change. The company's research will eventually find its way into revenue-producing technology. Rubin himself has noted that he does not look at robotics as an extended, years-long research project. That would suggest we will see results of research efforts materialize as real product concepts much sooner than later.
Dr. Raibert himself notes that, “I am excited by Andy and Google’s ability to think very, very big, with the resources to make it happen.” That says a lot. It sounds to us like a researcher looking to make the leap to the marketplace for his innovations and his inventions. We can't wait.
TechZone360 Senior Editor
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