Google seeks to commercialize humanoid robots

Google rolls in to give star treatment to Boston Dynamics at DARPA Robotics Challenge

HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- The first sign that Google now owns robotics heavyweight Boston Dynamics was when the Google bus rolled into the DARPA Robotics Challenge to offer engineers a place to kick back and take a nap.

Officials at Google, a company known for offering extravagant perks like meditation pods and beach volleyball courts to employees, showed up at the Homestead Miami Speedway in southern Florida today to show support for their new team and to get a look at the Atlas robot, built by Boston Dynamics, and one of the stars of the challenge.

Joe Bondaryk, project manager with Boston Dynamics, said Google is eager to get into humanoid robots. (Photo: Sharon Gaudin/Computerworld) Joe Bondaryk, project manager with Boston Dynamics

Last week, Google confirmed reports that it had acquired Boston Dynamics, a company known for creating impressive robots like the four-legged BigDog robot, as well as Atlas, a six-foot-tall, 330-pound two-legged robot designed to function much like a human.

Google, which is known for its search engine and popular Android mobile platform, had bought seven other robotics companies in the last several months, before snatching up Boston Dynamics.

Industry analysts had speculated that the company is interested in beefing up the software for its autonomous cars with the robotics acquisitions, but many were surprised that Google would go for a robotics player as prominent as Boston Dynamics.

Joe Bondaryk, project manager with Boston Dynamics, said Google is eager to get into humanoid robotics, and the company has the energy and the cash to advance the technology.

"My understanding is they're very interested in the humanoid robots and what they could be made to do, and finding a commercial use and business purpose for them," said Bondaryk. "DARPA is all blue sky thinking, but Google is even more blue sky and it has deeper pockets."

He also noted that Boston Dynamics will honor its government and military contracts but probably won't take on any new ones.

It's business as usual at the robotics company, Bondaryk said, the company also planning to make new hires now that Google has the reins.

"I don't think there's an organization structure yet," he said. "We're waiting for a grand vision and to hear about the synergy between the eight new robotics companies that Google [now] has... Andy [Rubin] says he'll listen to us all and take our advice."

The DARPA challenges is a great place for Andy Rubin, Google's robotics projects lead and the former head of Android, to get a good look at the third-generation Atlas.

On Friday and Saturday, 16 teams, including participants from Worcester Polytechnic Institute, Virginia Tech and NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory are vying to create the best software to enable their robot to turn valves, use human tools, climb a ladder and even drive a car.

Many of the teams have built software for their own Atlas robots, though some have built both the hardware and software.

"Our team is just thrilled to be supplying half the robots for the competition," said Bondaryk. "We've never had them all up and operating at once. It's a great feeling of accomplishment."

He also said the challenge is bringing much needed funding and attention to the advancement of humanoid robots.

"This is huge for robotics," said Bondaryk. "Before this there really wasn't any organized push in humanoid robotics."

He added that Boston Dynamics is working on a battery pack, so that at next year's final test in the three-part Robotics Challenge, none of the Atlas robots will need a power cord. The challenge in building the battery is making it powerful enough to fuel the robot but also light enough to be carried around with the machine.

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin, on Google+ or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed. Her email address is sgaudin@computerworld.com.

See more by Sharon Gaudin on Computerworld.com.

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