Google Acquires Robot Leader Boston Dynamics

The legendary DARPA contractor will become part of the new robotics unit led by Andy Rubin

Google has completed the stealthy acquisition of Boston Dynamics – one of the world’s most innovative robot design companies, made famous by such DARPA-funded projects like the robotic pack mule BigDog and bipedal humanoid rescue worker Atlas.

This is the eighth acquisition made to support Google’s mysterious robotics unit, managed by former Android OS chief Andy Rubin. The price of the deal has not been disclosed – and nor has the true purpose of the unit.

The purchase is quite unusual for a company that has made its billions on cloud-based software and services. Some have linked Google’s sudden interest in robots to its widely-publicized driverless car project, which has been running since 2010.

“We are looking forward to this next chapter in robotics and in what we can accomplish as part of the Google team,” Marc Raibert, co-founder of Boston Dynamics, said in a statement.

Buying bots

Boston Dynamics was spun off from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 1992. Using sensors, on-board computers and hydraulics, the company has been creating robots that run, climb sheer walls and jump over obstacles.

Front view of the humanoid robot Atlas, created by DARPA and Boston DynamicsIn the past, its projects were often funded by the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) – an organisation created in the middle of the Cold War to oversee research and development on behalf of the US Department of Defence.

For example, the Agency sponsored the development of the BigDog (pictured above) – a three feet long, 240 pound quadruped robot that can traverse rough terrain at four miles per hour, while carrying another 340 pounds on its back. This metal beast was designed for the Army, to act as a means of cargo transport in the areas with no roads.

More recently, Atlas (pictured on the left), the 330 pound humanoid robot, was demonstrated to navigate through rubble, independently climb over barricades and even balance on one leg. In the future, Atlas or its descendants could participate in search and rescue operations, capable of opening doors and operating equipment designed for humans.

According to the New York Times, Google will honour any outstanding military contracts with DARPA, but will not launch any new projects linked to the armed forces.

Before Boston Dynamics, Google bought seven robotics companies in the space of six months, including Schaft, a team from Japan that specialises in bipedal designs, and Bit & Dolly, a robotic arm manufacturer that supplied equipment for the Sci-Fi blockbuster Gravity.

According to Rubin, who himself owns seventeen patents, the new project is expected to run for a decade and involve both hardware and software development.

Whatever Google has planned for Boston Dynamics, it has got to be something important. Several of the companies it acquired have been focusing on  humanoid robots – something that isn’t suitable for a data centre or a factory, but has plenty of applications in more social environments.

Meanwhile, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos has announced that his company was testing package delivery using airborne drones with a view to launching an Amazon Prime Air service sometime around 2018.

And Google’s new Singapore data centre has a robot in the foyer – but it’s just an art project.

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