February 28, 2014      

Interesting DNA

If you push each member of Google?s new family of robotics together into a group, then stand back and squint your eyes real hard, you can almost make out the faint image of what the eventual GoogleBot is going to look like.

Somewhere in the very near future the GoogleBot, working by the thousands at Foxconn plants like the one in Shenzhen, will, undoubtedly, bear a strong family resemblance to Meka Robotics’ M1 Mobile Manipulator.

The M1 Mobile Manipulator is a great base to which other family members can easily and quickly add their own high-tech DNA or transplant entire body parts.

Andy Rubin probably has designer sketches of Googlebot hanging in a secret office somewhere.

See related: And Now for Something Completely Different: GoogleBots!

Meka Robotics was co-founded in 2006 by Aaron Edsinger and Jeff Weber.

REDORBIT &WSJ:?These days, Meka?s sophisticated robotics hardware includes human-sized heads, arms, hands, torsos and full-body systems with advanced control innovations such as torque control and measurements at each joint. And all of Meka?s robots run off Meka M3 and Robot Operating System software, which allows for real-time communication.

But the company?s biggest success to date is likely its M1 Mobile Manipulator ? a $340,000 robotic humanoid that incorporates all of Meka?s hardware.

Designed to lift and carry objects, the M1?s arms move seamlessly and are equipped with strong grippers and an advanced control system that allows the arms to slow down upon human touch. A customizable head with a Kinect 3-D camera, along with other digital cameras, is included for detecting objects. The unit?s base is an omnidirectional platform with a mechanical lift that allows the torso to move vertically.

meka full

Co-founded by Edsinger, Redwood Robotics focused specifically on refining Meka?s robot arms.

?Designing arms is part of the story,? said Edsinger, now a robotics director at Google.

With Google?s acquisitions, Edsinger believes that robotics innovation is on the rise.

Although the technology behind Meka?s robots was considered novel just a few years ago, what distinguished the company from a burgeoning robotics landscape ?was designing robots on human scale that had a focus on aesthetic packaging,? Edsinger noted.

Meka?s robots are also inspired from the co-founders? time as artists, when Edsinger (who holds a bachelor?s degree in computer science from Stanford University) and Weber (a trained industrial designer) were visual artists building anthropomorphic robotic sculptures for participation in theatrical performances.

?As artists we valued aesthetics and design, and human interaction, and how these robotic systems relate to people,? Edsinger said.

Mobility, moving hands and arms resolved

The existence of the M1 Mobile Manipulator may well be the reasoning behind GoogleBot ubermeister, Andy Rubin?s recent New York Times quote that ?breakthroughs would still be necessary in areas like software and sensors, […] but hardware issues like mobility and moving hands and arms had been resolved.”
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NOTE: Not many people know that Andy Rubin is Android. Back in the 90?s when he was working at Apple, Rubin was nicknamed Android by his colleagues because of his passion for robotics. Rubin went on to found Android Inc, which Google acquired in 2005 to form the foundation of its mobile OS division.

And then came Foxconn

According to the Wall Street Journal, which cited unnamed sources, Foxconn has been working with former Android executive Andy Rubin since last year “to carry out the U.S. company’s vision for robotics.”

Foxconn Chairman Terry Gou met with Rubin in Taipei recently and they discussed new robotic technologies, the report said. Gou expressed excitement over new automation technologies Rubin showed him and Rubin also asked Gou to help integrate a technology company that Google is acquiring.

The Wall Street Journal report also said the targets of Google?s new robotics team are in manufacturing ? such as electronics assembly, which is now largely manual ? and competing with companies like Amazon in retailing.

The cooperation comes as Foxconn has been striving to accelerate automation efforts at its factories amid challenges of rising labor costs and workplace disputes in China, where it has more than a million workers.

Foxconn?s chairman has reiterated his ambitions to build factories with robots in recent years as the company seeks to transform itself into a high-tech manufacturer focusing on high-margin, capital-intensive products such as automobile and medical equipment.

Analysts said the partnership makes sense as Foxconn, the world?s largest contract manufacturer of electronics devices, can provide Google the best testing ground for its new robotics technology.

They said Google is expected to build a new robotic operating system for manufacturers, just like the Android operating system for mobile computing devices. A successful robotics operating system would further strengthen Google?s position in the technology industry.

?Foxconn needs Google?s help to step up automation at its factories as the company has the lowest sales per employee among the contract makers, given its large workforce,? said Wanli Wang, an analyst at CIMB Securities.

?Using robots to replace human workers would be the next big thing in the technology industry. Not just Google, other major technology companies such as Microsoft and Amazon also have been developing robotics technology to capture the future growth opportunities.?

Maybe such low sales per employee was the reasoning behind Apple switching production to its iPhone 5 and IPad-mini to another manufacturer.

Things are happening fast on the Google robot front. A quick entry into the marketplace with a GoogleBot that works and works cheaply would instantly establish Google as the foremost co-robot maker in the world.

And the M1 Mobile Manipulator may get its own statue in Silicon Valley.