This article can be found on Engineering.com.
Eight recent company acquisitions by Google Inc. point to an intriguing conclusion: The tech giant wants to help direct the course of industrial robotics into an agile and ultra-intelligent future.
In December, John Markoff of the New York Times reported that Google had quietly acquired seven robotics firms over the previous six months. Then a follow-up article shortly thereafter reported an eighth acquisition. The acquisitions were headed by Andy Rubin, who led the development of Google’s Android platform.
The nature of the companies Google acquired suggests it plans to develop a platform to vastly improve the capabilities of industrial robots. And placing a honcho like Rubin in charge suggests that it is a high-priority effort.
Mark W. Spong, a robotics researcher and dean of engineering and computer science at the University of Texas at Dallas, told Tech Trends Journal that Google “is likely to accelerate industrial robotics.” The company, he said, “has both the vision and resources to make a significant impact.” He pointed to Google’s work with self-driving vehicles as a precedent.
John Parkinson, affiliate partner at Chicago-based Waterstone Management Group, a business advisory firm, agreed that Google’s move could have a major influence on industrial robotics.
Parkinson, who is a technology strategist and former CTO of several large firms, and who is working on a book on robotics, said in an interview, “You can see certain common themes in [the way] Google operates. They’re very platform-oriented.”
And expect Google’s dive into industrial automation to be a problem-solving game-changer, he said.
“From a strategic perspective, they like to determine what’s going to be the set of enablers that will have a big influence on some element of the economy. Then they go buy the best engineering talent they can find to work on it.” On top of that strategy, Google is able to apply “this big cash-flow stream, so they’re willing to make bets at scales where other people aren’t.”
There is certainly growth potential in industrial robotics. Cleveland-based business research firm Freedonia Group estimated the global market for robots in 2012 was $12.3 billion, and it projects 10.3 percent annual growth, reaching $20.2 billion by 2016. Another market researcher, Burnaby, B.C.-based TechSci Research, has even higher market expectations, forecasting industrial robotics industry revenues to reach $37 billion by 2018.
While Google is not saying much about its plans, Rubin did tell the Times that the company sees unmet needs in manufacturing and logistics as “clear opportunities” that are “not being served by today’s robotics technologies.”
Manufacturing robots “have always been limited by a poor understanding of fundamental problems like how to perform dexterous manipulation of objects — such as in assembly — and how to work in unstructured environments,” Spong told Tech Trends Journal. “These are things that humans do easily,” he said, but “to make progress here we need advances in sensing, control, machine learning, computer vision, and other areas.”
The Google acquisitions seem directed at the development of just the kinds of technologies Spong suggested.