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Apple, Amazon and now Google: It’s a pretty exciting day for robotics!

December 14, 2013

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There is serious momentum in robotics these days, evidenced by recent news from Apple, Amazon and Google:

  • Apple announced that they were investing $10.5 billion in supply chain robots and automation equipment and recently confirmed their acquisition of PrimeSense for $350 million (PrimeSense is the developer of the Kinnect 3D system used by MS Xbox)..
  • Amazon, in a CBS 60 Minutes piece aired last Sunday, displayed a new concept delivery system using an octocopter. Remember that in 2012 Amazon spent $750 million to acquire Kiva Systems, the robot technology enabling robotically-delivered goods to a picker/packer.
  • And now Google has set up a robotics division headed by the man behind the Android operating system, Andy Rubin. In Rubin’s first six months he has acquired seven robotic companies to jump start his new operation.
  • UPDATE 12-14-13: Google confirms its eighth acquisition: Boston Dynamics. The new acquisition is an engineering company that specializes in building dynamic robots and software for human simulation. The acquisition adds 80+ technicians, engineers and scientists to the new Google Robots Division talent pool – plus a new location.

What does it all mean?

First, some details.

Andy Rubin and Meka robot.
  • From a NY Times article by John Markoff interviewing Google’s Andy Rubin:
    • Google acquired 7 tech companies in the last 6 months. Schaft, a Japanese start-up developing a humanoid robot; Industrial Perception, a Silicon Valley start-up that developed a computer vision system for loading and unloading trucks; Meka Robotics, a robot developer for academia; Redwood Robotics, a start-up intended to compete with the Baxter robot (and others) entering the small and medium-sized shop and factory marketplace; Bot & Dolly, a maker of robotic camera systems used for special effects such as in the movie “Gravity;” Autofuss, a design and marketing firm and a partner in Bot & Dolly; and Holomni, a maker of powered caster modules for omnidirectional vehicles.
    • Although Google won’t disclose their plans, the article suggests that the company’s initial market will be in manufacturing, e.g., electronics assembly, which is mostly done by hand. “Manufacturing and logistics markets not being served by today’s robotic technologies are clear opportunity markets,” said Rubin.
    • The article suggests that the new Google robots will be able to automate any or all of the processes from the supply chain to the distribution channels to the consumer’s front door thereby creating a massive opportunity.
    • Google is already experimenting with urban deliveries including making home deliveries for companies like Target, Walgreens and others.
    • According to Markoff, “Mr. Rubin said he had pondered the possibility of a commercial effort in robotics for more than a decade. He has only recently come to think that a range of technologies have matured to the point where new kinds of automated systems can be commercialized.”
  • From The SFGate Tech Chronicles by James Temple:
    • Google is transforming itself in many ways including its new robotics division. Its constantly transforming its search engine into a sophisticated learning machine using artificial intelligence tools. Some of that AI talent is moving over to the new Robotics Division.
    • It’s been hiring super brains such as Ray Kurzweil and Peter Norvig and inhouse star Andy Rubin to head groups and divisions moving toward product development and even hardware manufacturing (remember that Google owns Motorola – a ready-made client for assembly and materials handling robots).
    • “Google’s move into robotics is likely to draw renewed attention and money into the space,” said Brian Gerkey in the article. “It’s a pretty exciting day for robotics when someone like Google makes an investment like that in robots, others are likely to follow suit. It can only spur investment and innovation.”
  • From Bloomberg News by Adam Satariano:
    • Apple is investing $10.5 billion in new technologies and robotics to polish the new iPhone 5C’s colored plastic cover, to laser and CNC machines to carve the MacBook’s aluminum body, and for testing and inspection gear for iPhone and iPad lenses.
    • Apple invested $6.5 billion on similar robotics and factory automation equipment in their previous fiscal year.
    • Samsung has indicated it plans to spend $22 billion in capital expenditures this year but didn’t disclose any further details.
  • For a review of the CBS 60 Minutes interview of Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos and Charlie Rose, see my previous post, “Jeff Bezos Reaches for Tip of UAS Iceberg.”
  • UPDATE 12-14-13: From a NY Times article by John Markoff about the Boston Dynamics acquisition:
    • Markoff says: “The deal is also the clearest indication yet that Google is intent on building a new class of autonomous systems that might do anything from warehouse work to package delivery and even elder care.”
    • Boston Dynamics, a 1992 spin-off from MIT, has been a great resource for youTube videos of wild robots. Their Big Dog video has been watched by more than 15 million viewers; their ATLAS robot video, the base robot given to the DARPA Robotics Challenge teams – a challenge to speed development of robotics technology for disaster response – has already passed the 2.5 million mark.
    • This is not an insignificant acquisiton. An ongoing business employing 80+ highly paid engineers and scientists has to have cost Google a very high amount, perhaps in the low 9 figures.
    • Boston Dynamic’s CEO and founder Marc Raibert was quoted in the article: “I am excited by Andy and Google’s ability to think very, very big, with the resources to make it happen.”

    What does all this mean?

    I think the yellow highlighted quote from Brian Gerkey sums up all these investments nicely: it’s a pretty exciting day for robotics when Google, Apple and Amazon ALL invest in robots and robotics. Others are likely to follow spurring further investment and innovation. Up until now, the big four of industrial robotics (KUKA, Fanuc, ABB and Yaskawa Motoman) were all foreign firms while two smaller American firms (iRobot and Intuitive Surgical) led the emerging service new-tech robotics sector. The remainder of this decade will be filled with amazing new robotics products from a variety of new providers — including Apple, Amazon and Google.

    Frank Tobe is the owner and publisher of The Robot Report, and is also a panel member for Robohub's Robotics by Invitation series... read more


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