Google’s latest ‘moonshot’: Rubin’s robots

SAN FRANCISCO — Google is designing robots for the manufacturing and supply chain sectors and Andy Rubin, the executive behind the company’s successful Android mobile operating system, is leading the effort.

The news was first reported by USA Today in August, however, new details emerged about the venture Wednesday.

Google has created a new robotics group under Rubin and bought seven tech companies in the past six months, including Schaft, Industrial Perception, Meka and Redwood Robotics, to help with the push, according to a person familiar with the situation. The person did not want to be identified because the group has not officially launched and the transactions were mostly small private deals.

Google began as an Internet search business and this is where the company still makes most of its prodigious revenue and profit. However, CEO Larry Page encourages the company to take big bets on new technology that may not become viable for years but could have a huge impact on how people live and do business. These long-term projects have become known as moonshots.

“Like any moonshot, you have to think of time as a factor,” Rubin told the New York Times Wednesday. “We need enough runway and a 10-year vision.”

Rubin, aged 50, stepped down from the Android business earlier this year without saying what he planned to do next at Google. The executive has been interested in robots for much of his career. Before working at Apple in the 1990s, he was a robotics engineer at German manufacturer Carl Zeiss.

Google shares rose less than 1% to $1,060.14, close to a record high, in early afternoon action Wednesday.

Page announced Rubin’s new project on the company’s social network Google+, reminding followers of the executive’s past success.

“His last big bet, Android, started off as a crazy idea that ended up putting a supercomputer in hundreds of millions of pockets,” Page wrote. “It is still very early days for this, but I can’t wait to see the progress.”

Google is not the only big tech company thinking about the potential of robots. CEO Jeff Bezos said this week that the Internet retailer is testing the use of drones for delivering packages in a little as 30 minutes.

“Google’s robotics ambitions and Bezos’s drone PR should be a reminder to investors that they are not only investing in the trend lines of the current financials, but in the future vision and broad ambitions of these companies,” Ben Schachter, an analyst at Macquarie, wrote in a note to clients Wednesday.

“Amazon and Google clearly are going to invest in projects that may not bear fruit for 5-10 years, if at all,” he added.

Sizing the potential addressable market for Google robots is “near impossible,” however, the company does not invest meaningfully in any business that it doesn’t think can be profitable and generate at least $5 billion in revenue in a reasonable time frame, the analyst noted.

Google has succeeded on big long-term projects before, such as YouTube and Android, and the company’s newer moonshots, such as self-driving cars and the Glass wearable computing platform, are beginning to show early commercial promise.

Robotics has been considered an emerging technology for decades, but for the most part it has been a disappointment. That may be changing, especially in the area of drones, according to Chris Dixon, a partner at venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz.

One of the main drivers of this is the rapidly falling cost of sensors and other components that are needed to maneuver drones and other robots.

“The promise of robotics is finally coming to fruition through drones,” Dixon said. “Several factors have come together to make them viable.”

The price of components such as GPS, cellular connections, small, energy efficient processors and tiny cameras, has dropped dramatically because they are already made in such high volume for smartphones, he explained.

Google uses cars with mounted cameras, combined with satellite data to build its popular Maps service. Some of this data collection could be done more cost-effectively with drones, according to Dixon.

“Satellites cost $500 million to build and get in the air. Drones cost in the thousands of dollars,” he noted.

A Google spokeswoman declined to comment on whether the company uses drones. However, Rubin was pictured in the New York Times Wednesday beside a small, yellow helicopter and the company has made huge strides in developing self-driving cars.

Google’s robotics acquisition spree also gives some clues about where its latest venture may be headed.

Meka makes humanoid robots and related technology that the San Francisco start-up says will help robots “work alongside people in the home and the workplace.” Schaft, based in Japan, is developing walking robots.

Industrial Perception calls itself a leader in 3D vision-guided technology that enables industrial robots to do tricky logistical tasks such as truck and container unloading, e-commerce fulfillment and package sorting.

Redwood Robotics is working on robotic arms, or “manipulators,” that it says will reduce the stress of dull and repetitive tasks. This type of technology is beginning to change traditional manufacturing and distribution, but the start-up thinks it will revolutionize service industries such as healthcare and hospitality too.

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