June 09, 2017      

Google has ended one part of its foray into robotics with a deal to sell Boston Dynamics, maker of the BigDog quadruped and Atlas humanoid robots, to Japanese mobile carrier SoftBank Group Corp., known for its Pepper robots.

SoftBank will buy Boston Dynamics, led by CEO and founder Marc Raibert, as well as Japanese bipedal robotics company Schaft, from Google’s parent company Alphabet Inc. under the deal announced Friday. Financial terms were not disclosed.

“Today, there are many issues we still cannot solve by ourselves with human capabilities,” SoftBank Group Chairman and CEO Masayoshi Son said in a release. “Smart robotics are going to be a key driver of the next stage of the Information Revolution, and Marc and his team at Boston Dynamics are the clear technology leaders in advanced dynamic robots.”

“I am thrilled to welcome them to the SoftBank family and look forward to supporting them as they continue to advance the field of robotics and explore applications that can help make life easier, safer and more fulfilling,” said Son.

Business Takeaways:

  • SoftBank has acquired Boston Dynamics, which is best known for videos of its bipedal and quadruped robots. The ambitious telecom and robotics provider also bought fellow Japanese company Schaft, which has also made a walking robot.
  • The deal also marks the end of an era at Google parent Alphabet Inc., which had acquired several robotics firms four years ago. Alphabet, which also spun off its self-driving car unit as Waymo, is likely refocusing on artificial intelligence.
  • Although it’s not yet clear whether SoftBank will combine its new purchases with SoftBank Robotics, the company is clearly focusing on mobile, service, and humanoid robots.

Acquisition ends speculation

Speculation has swirled for the past year about potential buyers for the companies, including Amazon.com Inc. and the Toyota Research Institute.

The deal comes a year and a half after entrepreneur Andy Rubin left Google, where he headed the search giant’s robotics project. The co-founder of the Android operating system has since been leading tech incubator Playground Global. Some observers saw his departure as a sign that Google’s robotics strategy had gone adrift after its 2013 shopping spree in which it bought a group of robotics companies, including Waltham, Mass.-based Boston Dynamics.

“We at Boston Dynamics are excited to be part of SoftBank’s bold vision and its position creating the next technology revolution, and we share SoftBank’s belief that advances in technology should be for the benefit of humanity,” Raibert said. “We look forward to working with SoftBank in our mission to push the boundaries of what advanced robots can do and to create useful applications in a smarter and more connected world.”

The notoriously secretive Schaft, founded at the JSK Robotics Laboratory at the University of Tokyo in 2012, had been off the radar since Google picked it up in 2013, when it excelled at the DARPA Robotics Challenge.

Last year, Schaft co-founder Yuto Nakanishi made a brief public appearance in Tokyo at the 2016 New Economy Summit, where he showed off a pair of bipedal robots that walked around the stage. He described them as low-cost, low-power helpers that could carry up to 60 kg (132.2 lb.) and navigate stairs and rough terrain.

SoftBank builds its humanoid robots portfolio

It’s unclear whether SoftBank Robotics, which has sold more than 10,000 of its $1,800 Pepper humanoid robots since June 2015, will be the unit taking over Boston Dynamics and Schaft. Tokyo-based SoftBank said the deal aligns with its investments in “paradigm-shifting technologies and its vision of catalyzing the next wave of smart robotics.”

The companies don’t have commercial products yet but they will add to SoftBank’s robot portfolio, which began with its 2012 acquisition of French robotics company Aldebaran Robotics, maker of the Nao humanoid robot.

In 2015, SoftBank invested in warehouse automation startup Fetch robotics and in 2016 it bought British semiconductor designer ARM Holdings, which has since branched out into making processors for devices such as surgical robots.

“With the recently announced sale of Boston Dynamics and Schaft, the most compelling companies among [its] 2013 acquisitions, Alphabet is clearly abandoning, or at least downplaying, its robotics intentions and robotics leadership role,” said Dan Kara, research director at ABI Research. “Conversely, SoftBank has added significant robotics engineering expertise and thought leadership with the acquisitions, particularly as it relates to legged locomotion.”

“Boston Dynamics is regarded as the leading developer technologies for robotic legged locomotion, and Schaft, too, is strong on bipedal and quadrupedal locomotion, as well as advanced manipulation and artificial intelligence,” Kara noted.

While promoting Pepper after its launch, billionaire Son said he was willing to sell the humanoid robot at a loss for years to enable it to gain some traction in the marketplace. He may take the same wait-and-see approach with Boston Dynamics and Schaft.

Son recently said at Mobile World Congress that the so-called singularity will happen by 2047, and one computer chip will have a 10,000 IQ within the next 30 years.

“I truly believe it’s coming; that’s why I’m in a hurry to aggregate the cash, to invest,” he said. “It will be so much more capable than us.”

More on Service, Humanoid Robots: