The internet company’s acquisition of Boston Dynamics is latest in a string of robotics acquisitions in a mysterious initiative led by former Android chief Andy Rubin. As Amazon readies a fleet of delivery drones, Boston Dynamics is Google’s biggest prize yet in the robot wars.
Boston Dynamics began as a spinoff from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1992, and quickly started working on projects for the military. Besides BigDog, that includes Cheetah, an animal-like robot developed to run at high speeds, which was followed up by a more versatile model called WildCat. It's also worked on Atlas, a humanoid robot designed to work outdoors.
Most of Boston Dynamics’ robots have been developed with funding from the US Department of Defense’s research unit, Darpa (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency), making Google a military contractor, at least for now.
“The future is looking awesome!” said Mr Rubin (who formerly ran Google's Android division) in a tweet linking to the New York Times, which first reported the acquisition on Saturday. A Google spokesperson confirmed the deal but declined to elaborate on its price or plans.
The purchase is the latest sign of a sudden and, to many, startling new interest in robots from consumer internet companies, as their operations move from the virtual to the real world.
Last year, Amazon spent $775m on Kiva Systems, a robotics company used to automate its fulfilment centers, and earlier this month, chief executive Jeff Bezos said that the online retailer is developing unmanned aerial vehicles that he hopes will deliver parcels to customers within five years.
According to The Verge, Rubin earlier this month told NYT that his next big project at Google was to pursue a lifelong love of real robots, something that will be separate from the company's secretive Google X lab best known for "moonshot" projects like balloon-powered internet and self-driving cars. In the meantime, Google's quietly picked up seven different robot companies and hired robotics experts, placing teams in Palo Alto and Japan.Mr Rubin stepped down from leading Google’s Android mobile operating system in March and only revealed his new assignment after Mr Bezos announced Amazon’s drone initiative on US television.
His other acquisitions include Bot & Dolly, a design studio that makes an automated camera system used in movies such as Gravity, and Schaft, a spin-off from the University of Tokyo whose bipedal robots boast much stronger “muscles” than other bots.
Boston Dynamics was founded in 1992 by Marc Raibert, formerly of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. A much-viewed YouTube video shows Boston Dynamics’ four-legged WildCat robot “galloping” and “bounding” around a car park at speeds of 16 miles per hour, before – perhaps reassuringly – falling to its knees on ice.
The response from the tech community has been a mixture of awe, amusement and apprehension at the potential uses of robots at a company with Google’s scale, resources and trove of personal information.
“Which company that owns all our private data and has the motto “Don’t Be Evil” just bought a military robotics firm?” tweeted Joe Randazzo, creative director at Adult Swim, a comedy and satire channel.
“‘Don’t be evil,’ he cried, while being chased by the robot hounds,” quipped Andy Baio, a tech entrepreneur and founder of the XOXO conference, in a tweet.