What Can Google Bring with its Move Into Industrial Robotics?

By Al Bredenberg
01/27/2014
Google acquired Bot & Dolly, whose IRIS robotic platform is used in the entertainment industry. But further robotics innovations could benefit other industrial uses, like manufacturing. Credit: Bot & Dolly

Eight recent company acquisitions by Google Inc. point to an intriguing conclusion: The tech giant wants to help direct the course of industrial robotics into an agile and ultra-intelligent future.

In December, John Markoff of the New York Times reported that Google had quietly acquired seven robotics firms over the previous six months. Then a follow-up article shortly thereafter reported an eighth acquisition. The acquisitions were headed by Andy Rubin, who led the development of Google’s Android platform.

The nature of the companies Google acquired suggests it plans to develop a platform to vastly improve the capabilities of industrial robots. And placing a honcho like Rubin in charge suggests that it is a high-priority effort.

Mark W. Spong, a robotics researcher and dean of engineering and computer science at the University of Texas at Dallas, told Tech Trends Journal that Google “is likely to accelerate industrial robotics.” The company, he said, “has both the vision and resources to make a significant impact.” He pointed to Google’s work with self-driving vehicles as a precedent.

John Parkinson, affiliate partner at Chicago-based Waterstone Management Group, a business advisory firm, agreed that Google’s move could have a major influence on industrial robotics.

Parkinson, who is a technology strategist and former CTO of several large firms, and who is working on a book on robotics, said in an interview, “You can see certain common themes in [the way] Google operates. They’re very platform-oriented.” 

And expect Google's dive into industrial automation to be a problem-solving game-changer, he said.

"From a strategic perspective, they like to determine what’s going to be the set of enablers that will have a big influence on some element of the economy. Then they go buy the best engineering talent they can find to work on it.” On top of that strategy, Google is able to apply “this big cash-flow stream, so they’re willing to make bets at scales where other people aren’t.”

There is certainly growth potential in industrial robotics. Cleveland-based business research firm Freedonia Group estimated the global market for robots in 2012 was $12.3 billion, and it projects 10.3 percent annual growth, reaching $20.2 billion by 2016. Another market researcher, Burnaby, B.C.-based TechSci Research, has even higher market expectations, forecasting industrial robotics industry revenues to reach $37 billion by 2018.

While Google is not saying much about its plans, Rubin did tell the Times that the company sees unmet needs in manufacturing and logistics as “clear opportunities” that are “not being served by today’s robotics technologies.”

Manufacturing robots "have always been limited by a poor understanding of fundamental problems like how to perform dexterous manipulation of objects -- such as in assembly -- and how to work in unstructured environments," Spong told Tech Trends Journal. “These are things that humans do easily,” he said, but “to make progress here we need advances in sensing, control, machine learning, computer vision, and other areas.”

The Google acquisitions seem directed at the development of just the kinds of technologies Spong suggested.

Two of the acquisitions, San Francisco-based Bot & Dolly and its sister company, communications firm Autofuss, were involved in the making of the science fiction film Gravity. Bot & Dolly’s IRIS robotics platform, with four robots, was used to create the immersive visuals in the film, particularly the simulations of weightlessness. IRIS is an integrated software and hardware platform for the control of six-axis industrial robots, for which Bot & Dolly has developed a reputation for innovative approach to robotic motion control.

Industrial Perception (IPI), also based in San Francisco, developed an intelligent 3-D vision guidance system for industrial robots. Analyst Jason Dorrier, writing for Singularity Hub, noted that IPI’s robots “use computer vision to better understand what they’re looking at and handle non-standard situations,” such as autonomous unloading of trucks. In fact, speaking about one of its robots, IPI’s CEO told Dorrier: “You point it at a trailer full of boxes, and it will unload it, unsupervised.”

Along with acquiring those companies pushing the limits of robotic capabilities, Google bought a bevy of startups involved in building humanoid robots, robot arms, and specialized wheels, as well as Boston Dynamics. The latter, based in Waltham, Mass., developed a set of robots known for speed, mobility, and agility. For an example, see this video of engineers putting the company’s WildCat robot through a series of spookily realistic maneuvers like galloping, bounding, and turning.

Parkinson said that, in spite of these company acquisitions, Google is “probably not interested in taking over the building of robots.” Rather, he told Tech Trends Journal, the area where Google has a lot of understanding “is in how to make complete systems work reliably and how to design systems that stay robust even under partial system failure.” To that end, he thinks the company intends to develop an advanced software platform to take industrial robotics to a new level of functionality.

The market and industrial users will begin to see results sooner rather than later, Parkinson predicts. “Google is not about having the complete [long-term] answer,” he said, but about moving forward in increments and seeing what works. He added that the company is probably looking right now for manufacturers to work with on near-term projects.

“I think you’ll see some things within a year or so,” Parkinson said. “I’d be very surprised if we didn’t see something in 2015.”

And the results should be ground-breaking, according to him. “One of the hard things about Google is to try and guess just how mind-blowing their thinking is going to be, because they’re very talented and they have a lot of money, and neither [co-founder Sergey Brin nor Larry Page, co-founder and CEO] has any limit to their ambitions.” 

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