Google dives headfirst into robotics with Boston Dynamics buy

With robots like Atlas and BigDog, Boston Dynamics makes Google a big robotics player

When it wants something, Google doesnt just stick its toe in the water. No, it simply dives in head first. Less than two weeks after reports circulated that Google has been buying up robotics companies for the past six months as part of an effort to develop its own robotics technology, the company said it's buying Boston Dynamics, one of the most well-known robotics companies in the world.

Boston Dynamics confirmed to the IDG News Service this weekend that it is acquiring the company behind the four-legged rough-terrain traversing BigDog robot, as well as Atlas, a six-foot-tall, 330-pound robot designed to function much like a human.

Atlas is the focus of a DARPA-sponsored robotics challenge later this week that will have 17 teams from the likes of Carnegie Mellon University and NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory vying to create the best software to enable the robot to turn valves, use human tools, climb a ladder and even drive a car.

And Boston Dynamics was at a robotics demonstration for the U.S. Army at Fort Benning in Georgia in October, showing off its BigDog robot. While the company declined to talk about its work there, officials did say they were under contract with DARPA, or the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

BigDog robot
Boston Dynamics showed off its BigDog robot, shown crouched down here, during a robotics demonstration at Fort Benning this fall. (Image: Sharon Gaudin)

Now, Boston Dynamics, which works with industry as well as the U.S. military, will be part of Google. That's a bit of an odd pairing, according to Ezra Gottheil, an analyst for Technology Business Research.

"I can usually figure some connection between Google's main business and their wilder acquisitions and projects, but this one is hard to figure," Gottheil told Computerworld. "The only thing I can figure is that they like to buy very smart people and very smart technologies. Certainly, there's a potential integration with the automobile stuff, but I still don't have a clue."

For several years now, Google has been working to develop autonomous cars, logging thousands of miles on the road, getting the first license for a driverless car and even approaching major auto makers in Detroit as potential partners in their effort.

For the last six months, Google has been buying robotics companies in an effort to develop technology that can be used in its manufacturing operation, which largely focuses on electronics assembly. Boston Dynamics will be the eighth robotics company acquired.

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

Zeus Kerravala, an analyst with ZK Research, noted that at first glance, this does seem like an odd purchase for Google, which is known for search, its highly popular Android platform, the Chromebook and Maps. But it's just an extension of their recent robotics interest.

"Well, much of what Google does is experiment with stuff and that's what makes them Google," said Kerravala. "With Boston Dynamics, they get a bunch of robots in different shapes and sizes. And Google is just a company that's really out there and has deep pockets."

Google confirmed to Computerworld that it is buying Boston Dynamics, but declined to comment further.

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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