Google is building a robot army

By Ned Donovan on January 15th, 2014

Google’s company motto is “Don’t be evil”, but the fact that Google has bought 8 robotics companies over the last 6 months, including the infamous Boston Dynamics, hints that there might be something less than angelic going on in Mountain View. It’s an impression that hasn’t been helped by the search engine giant keeping quiet about the spending spree and refusing to divulge any of the details or motives behind the purchases.

With Amazon supposedly launching drone delivery next year, the invasion of robots is certainly upon us. While Amazon’s motive is clear, Google is less vocal and the robot project remains a mystery. In fact, the giant has been so quiet about the acquisitions that it wasn’t until Boston Dynamics was bought that the other 8 companies came to light. The New York Times has labelled them collectively as Google’s ‘Robot Menagerie.’

All of this is part of what Google vaguely calls “the Robot Project”, and it is being managed by the former head of Android, Andy Rubin. Combined with the empty Google Barges floating in the San Francisco Bay, there is a mystery behind what is going on at the Mountain View Campus.

1. Boston Dynamics

Arguably the touchpaper that lit the revelation that Google had spent the past year acquiring robots, Boston Dynamics is the most well known of the 8 companies. This is mainly due to its projects such as “Big Dog” going viral on social media. Boston Dynamics’ focus in the past few years has been on working for DARPA, the US Military’s own R&D lab. They are responsible for the terrifying freestanding bipedal robot “Petman” that can walk, wear camouflage and deal with chemical disasters.

2. Meka Robotics

Meka “We have been acquired by Google and are busy building the robot revolution. Please come again.” That is the message that appears on Meka Robotics’ website below a robot face that fits well into the uncanny valley. Meka is well known for creating the humanoid android Dreamer that mimics human facial interaction. One of their achievements has been to create robot eyes that function at the same speed as the eyes of humans.

3. Redwood Robotics

If, in the future, you have the ability to buy a robot butler, the chances are its arms will have been made by Redwood. The company had made its entire focus on creating the perfect robotic arm and was jointly founded by Meka Robotics and another firm. The company was last reported to be working on a cheap robotic arm available for less than $5,000.

4. Industrial Perception

With the motto being, “Providing robots with the skills they’ll need to succeed in the economy of tomorrow”, Industrial Perception sounds like a university for robots. The company is behind a 3D vision system for robots that makes the Industrial Perception creations look like Wall-E when they’re functioning.

5. Holomni

Robot designer Bob Holmberg

Robot designer Bob Holmberg

Holomni is trying to re-invent the wheel, literally. They created an omnidirectional robotic wheel which solves the long-existing ‘parallel parking problem’. When applying an omniwheel to a robot, its abilities in terms of motion planning expand hugely.

6 and 7. Bot and Dolly and Autofuss

With the tagline, “Hollywood meet Detroit”, the robots which Bot and Dolly create are set to revolutionise the film industry. With fully automated filming through pre-programmed triggers, the robot cameras remove much of the human input required when dealing with large scale cinematographic projects. Autofuss is the design studio arm of Bot and Dolly and helped with the design of the Google Nexus.

8. Schaft

This robot that recently won a DARPA competition on the ability to perform well in a search and rescue competition is truly the renaissance robot. Able to drive cars, negotiate fallen rubble and use a chainsaw, it could be one of the greatest life savers in disasters for the future.

So what is Google trying to get from the purchase of their robot army? With the recent acquisition of the Nest Project, and the continued development of Google Glass and the Google driverless car, there seems to be a clear desire to create a ‘Google Home’. Unlike their competitors, who often purchase software startups and computer tools, Google has recently focused on products that will directly impact on the lives of consumers. And with Google’s online platform combined with its marketing power, the purchase of these 8 companies brings the corporation a step closer to their goal in making Google robots a part of our daily lives.