Google buys major military robot maker: Why does search giant want to be ‘BigDog’ of automation?
Nidhi Subbaraman NBC News
ATLAS, a 330-lb. humanoid robot, that they will use to compete in a DARPA robot competition.
Google is on a robot shopping spree, and its recent purchase of a military robot maker has some wondering what exactly the company intends to do with its own zoo of electronic creatures that creep, crawl, and climb.
It may seem odd for the Internet search giant to purchase a Boston Dynamics, a company that makes rugged machines that can run up to 29 mph, traverse rocky terrain and hurl cinder blocks up to 17 feet. The company is the eighth robot maker Google has snatched up. But the deals also indicate that the Internet giant and pioneer of self-driving cars is serious about a robot-filled future.
Other Internet-based companies are tapping into the consumer trend as well. Last year, Amazon bought Kiva Systems, to move packages in their warehouses. Earlier this month, in an announcement that raised eyebrows, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos announced that flying delivery drones would deliver packages within five years. Meanwhile, experts and researchers anticipate that with our booming population, people may come to increasingly rely on assistive robots for elderly care.
Google’s master plan remains a secret
So far, Google isn’t sharing much about the purchases augmenting it’s newly-launched robotics division. “It is still very early days for this, but I can’t wait to see the progress,” Larry Page wrote in a Google+ post, when the New York Times revealed news of the robotics operation.
Google seems to be piecing the ultimate walking, dexterous robot that can sense its surroundings — Boston Dynamics joins an assortment of newly acquired robot makers with a variety of strengths. For example, Schaft, spun off from Tokyo University, is developing a champion rescue humanoid with great balance and strong limbs, (which started out as a great pair of legs). Makers of graspers and robotics arms — Meka and Redwood Robotics are also in the mix, as are Bot and Dolly, which build robotic camera systems that were used to film “Gravity.”
“I think it will be the transformation of our society — how we work, how we learn, take care of our sick, conduct our commerce, explore, handle disasters, fight wars… everything,” Peter Diamandis, big-thinker and founder of the X-Prize Foundation, wrote in a Google+ post on Friday.
Mechanical monster hounds and more
Boston Dynamics tackles the challenge of locomotion on uneven turf — a hurdle to roboticists who design machines that move. Compared to existing home robots like the iRobot’s floor-cleaner Roomba, Boston Dynamics’ zooniverse of animal-based robots built for climbing hills, clearing walls, and surviving wars are made of some serious metal.
Started by Marc Raibert, a roboticist who taught at MIT and Carnegie Mellon University, and author of “Legged Robots That Balance,” the company channels funding from DARPA and various arms of the military into a steadily expanding family of robots that can tackle almost any terrain.
BigDog, a headless four-legged monster hound is trained to hurl 35 lb cinderblocks over a distance of 17 feet, and keep its footing over very uneven turf. A record-breaker, the Cheetah robot, clocked a charging speed of 28.3 miles per hour, breaking Usain Bolt’s running time. Boston Dynamics demoed it’s successor, WildCat, this year, which can move without Cheetah’s power cords, but is not quite as fast … yet. Moving on wheels rather than legs, the tiny 11-lb Sand Flea can leap up to 30 feet, easily two stories, into the air.
Boston Dynamics’ army of robotic wonder-beasts wouldn’t be complete without a sampling of two-legged human lookalikes.
PETMAN, the company’s first model, has been dry-testing safety suits for the military for a few years. But in June this year, the Boston Dynamics took the wraps off Atlas, a chunkier cousin of the PETMAN humanoid, which will compete for a future as a rescue robot in DARPA’s ongoing robotics innovation contest.
“We have had a great time at Boston Dynamics, building our menagerie of robots and bringing them this far along,” Marc Raibert, founder of Boston Dynamics, wrote in an email to NBC News. “Now we are excited to take the next step, to see how much further ahead we can take robotics, working with Google’s gangbuster team.”
The not-so-distant future of Google robots
The possibilities are tantalizing: What can Google do with a brood of hyper-mobile galloping robots? The search-giant is already bulking up its navigation systems in the self-driving cars. For off-road exploration, with that technology added to BigDog or WildCat, isn’t too much of a stretch to imagine.
Yet, several questions remain. With Google at the helm, will Raibert and BigDog be muzzled? So far, Boston Dynamics has been open, even brazen, about showing off the latest in its lineup of awe-inspiring yet fearsome machines via regularly posted YouTube videos. Founder Raibert told a gathering of roboticists at the International Robotics and Intelligent Systems conference in Tokyo in November that he tracked Boston Dynamics’ YouTube view counts, and was proud of how BigDog had become an Internet sensation. Meanwhile, earlier acquisitions Meka and Redwood Robotics, have closed down their websites and retreated into stealth mode.
One thing to watch for: Will BigDog be trained not to chase after Google’s self-driving cars?
Nidhi Subbaraman writes about technology and science. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter and Google+.
Dec. 16, 2013 at 5:33 PM ET
Why Google Bought a Fleet of Military Robots
By Will Oremus
Google just bought a fearsome fleet of robots.
The company confirmed a New York Times report that it has acquired Boston Dynamics, the Massachusetts-based maker of such noted mechanical beasts as BigDog, Atlas, Petman, Cheetah, and Wildcat. The company’s robots are among the world’s most advanced two- and four-legged machines. Some are humanoid, while others resemble predatory animals. Most have been developed under contract with military agencies, including the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA.
Will Oremus Will Oremus
Will Oremus is a Slate staff writer. Email him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter.
What might Google want with an army of military robots? At first gasp, the answer might seem to be, “conquering the world.” But that doesn’t seem to be the goal—at least, not in a military sense. Google told the Times it will honor Boston Dynamics’ existing contracts, including a $10.8 million deal with DARPA to develop its Atlas prototype for potential humanitarian use in disasters like the Fukushima meltdown. But Google added that it does not plan to become a military contractor itself.
Instead, my guess is that the company sees the development of physical robots as a natural extension of its core interest in artificial intelligence. Google has been working for years on teaching machines to understand language, make sense of images and videos, and navigate real-world environments. Now it will have a new set of toys—er, tools—on which to test out its machine-learning theories. Boston Dynamics, by the way, is the company’s eighth robotics-related acquisition in the past year alone.
What practical use they’ll ultimately serve is anyone’s guess. Google itself probably doesn’t know at this point. But it has put one of its top executives—former Android chief Andy Rubin—to work full-time figuring that out. (The Times had a good story on Rubin earlier this month.)
From all the press Boston Dynamics’ DARPA bots have gotten, you might think this acquisition would be a big blow to national security. In fact, as I’ve explained before, the company’s robots are a long way from being truly useful in the field. DARPA, like Google, was more interested in using them to learn what is and isn’t possible than to actually aid in any upcoming military efforts. With Boston Dynamics out of play, the field should now be open for other robotics companies to snap up those military-research contracts. Fellow Massachusetts-based company iRobot—maker of the Roomba, but also more advanced projects like the PackBot bomb-disposal robot—comes to mind.
For now, here’s a look at some of Boston Dynamics’ greatest hits, which are now officially GoogleBots—and which may be among the last of their breed.
Meet DARPA’s real-world Terminator, Atlas
By Sebastian Anthony on July 12, 2013
DARPA and Boston Dynamics, of BigDog, Petman, and Cheetah fame, have unveiled their most advanced humanoid robot yet: Atlas. At 6’2″ (188cm) and 330lbs (150kg), Atlas is incredibly imposing; with 28 hydraulically actuated joints, LIDAR and stereo vision, a beefy on-board computer, and some of the most advanced robotic limbs ever conceived, Atlas is remarkably human-like in its behavior. While Atlas is initially conceived as a disaster response robot, such as cleaning up and looking for survivors after a Fukushima-like disaster, it’s easy to imagine Atlas being the basis of a robotic army, supported by BigDog mules.
As you can see in the photo above and the video below, Atlas is incredibly technologically advanced. With 28 hydraulic joints, Atlas can replicate almost every degree of human motion — or, in the case of the robot hands provided by iRobot and Sandia National Labs, surpass them. Vision is provided by a Carnegie Robotics LIDAR and stereo camera system; LIDAR, or light-based radar, is the same detection and ranging system used by autonomous vehicles, such as Google’s self-driving car. LIDAR is expensive, but incredibly accurate. The tech specs say that Atlas has its own on-board hydraulic pump, but you can see in the video that it’s still tethered to some kind of off-board power/hydraulic supply. Like BigDog, which started off tethered, Atlas will eventually be self-powered and free to roam wherever it wishes.
Atlas has an on-board, real-time computer — but it hasn’t yet been loaded up with its software brain. As it stands, Atlas is a shell, and more than a dozen teams will now compete in the DARPA Robotics Challenge (DRC) to see who can create the best brain for Atlas. In December 2013, each team will load up an Atlas with its software and compete in a series of disaster response trials. The best teams will receive continued funding from DARPA, and will then compete in the DRC finals in December 2014. Whoever wins that will receive $2 million from DARPA, and presumably a big contract for the commercial production of Atlas robots.
The ostensible purpose of Atlas is disaster response. As you can see in the video, Atlas has no problem walking over rough terrain, and the robotic hands that it’s equipped with are some of most dexterous and flexible hands that money can buy. (Read more about the iRobot and Sandia robot hands.) Hopefully, Atlas will be able to wade into dangerous disaster zones and save human lives.
It is hard to ignore the fact that Atlas looks like a Terminator, though. Given that its canine predecessor, BigDog, will soon join the US Marines, it seems inevitable that Atlas will eventually find its way to the battlefield. When that happens, the US will be able to field robot soldiers that are stronger, more resilient, and probably more accurate with their weapons than their human counterparts. At first, as with today’s UAVs, Atlas soldiers will probably be operated by humans situated safely in a bunker back home — but as their software improves, autonomous robot soldiers are not out of the question.
And then, a few months or years or decades later, they’ll take over the world.
US Army Robots Will Outnumber Human Soldiers in a Decade
A lot can happen in 10 years, especially with the ever-increasing advances in technology. When you think about what might happen in the military in the next decade, the possibilities seem endless. With so much technology at our hands, will humans eventually become second class to machines? Long have robotic soldiers been prevalent in Hollywood, with movies such as Terminator and I-Robot, but some experts think a surplus of robots might actually be enlisting into the armed forces by 2023. Just how many robots? Well, quite a few.
Scott Hartley, one of the founders of 5D Robotics, recently had this to say at an Army demonstration at Fort Benning in Georgia: …”ten years from now, there will probably be one soldier for every 10 robots. Each soldier could have one or five robots flanking him, looking for enemies, scanning for land mines.”
Robots…The Future Of The Military?
Wow. That would be a ratio of 10 robotic soldiers to every human soldier – that’s quite the difference in numbers!
The demonstration at Fort Benning included military leaders observing different robots using M-240 machine guns to hit targets at a distance of 800 meters. Some of these robots were remotely controlled, but others were not. In the future, some leaders are eventually hoping that robots will become more and more human like on the battlefield.
Hartley praises the technology pointing out the lives that could eventually be saved by sending robots into harms way. Granted, if robots are used in place of humans, that would certainly minimize human casualties of war, but it seems it would also make war less of an extreme option. After all, robots don’t have families; they don’t have children who would lose a Mom or a Dad in the fight for freedom. Robotic soldiers also lose the camaraderie gained by their human counterparts.
If the military was full of robots, the country could just go to war without much of a second thought, because really,besides the cost – who cares about robots? Robots are great for a lot of different purposes, but I’m not so sure they should be fighting our battles and wars for us.
What do you think? Are you all for robots replacing most of the humans in the military?
The only thing I can think of when I read these articles, are the Movies “I-Robot” and The “Terminator Series”.
– TDP Admin.