Google Searches for Robots’ Home

Google will try to map a path to mainstream robotics, according to a New York Times interview with the man behind the move. The search company has the cash and a smart, passionate, and experienced enthusiast. The open question is whether that’s enough to turn this broadly fascinating field into any mainstream commercial opportunities.

Leading the charge is Andy Rubin, the engineer who brought us the operating system he called Android after his passion for robotics. Rubin used Google’s software and financial clout to create a version of mobile Linux that has risen above a crowd of small OSes.

Today Android increasingly dominates in smartphones and tablets, but I think the job in robotics is different and tougher. Robotics has long been fascinating potential that’s been tough to realize.

MIT robotics researchers had the first big breakthrough with its Roomba automated vacuum cleaner — a rare consumer spinoff from its military robots. More recently, Willow Garage created a humanoid robotics platform — and a robotics open-source software group — to give interested innovators some traction.

DARPA recently launched a challenge to develop the best search-and-rescue humanoid robot. That program has already spawned some exciting work. Even Wall Street sees the potential; a robotics stock index tracks 77 companies in the area.

Rubin has mass market savvy from his work on Android, as well as Google’s financial backing, which the NYT article said has enabled him to buy seven robotics companies, including:

  • Schaft, the Japanese maker of a humanoid robot
  • Industrial Perception, a computer vision and robotic arm startup
  • Meka and Redwood Robotics, makers of humanoid robots and robot arms
  • Bot & Dolly, whose robotic cameras were used in the movie Gravity
  • Autofuss, an advertising and design firm
  • Holomni, a maker of specialized wheels

There’s no doubt Rubin’s effort will attract a flood of resumes from engineers who share his passion for robotics. I’d love to hear from some of you about what you see as the untapped commercial opportunities and challenges of getting them on mechanical legs.

— Rick Merritt, Silicon Valley Bureau Chief, EE Times Circle me on Google+