|Cool? Distrubing? Both? Boston Dynamics' Atlas robot is coordinated enough to navigate stairs. (Image source: Boston Dynamics)|
Four years after it was purchased by Google, pioneering advanced robotics company, Boston Dynamics, is getting a new owner in the form of Japan's SoftBank.
The Tokyo-based telecom company announced last week that it has entered into a deal with Google's parent company, Alphabet, for one of its subsidiaries to purchase Boston Dynamics from Alphabet for an undisclosed amount, pending regulatory approval and closing conditions.
“Today, there are many issues we still cannot solve by ourselves with human capabilities,” Masayoshi Son, Chairman and CEO of SoftBank, said in a statement. “Smart robotics are going to be a key driver of the next stage of the Information Revolution, and [CEO Marc Reibert] and his team at Boston Dynamics are the clear technology leaders in advanced dynamic robots.”
Founded in 1992 as a spin off from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Boston Dynamics has made waves in the robotics industry in recent years because of its advanced robots capable of human- and animal-like movements. Videos of Boston Dynamics' robots often go viral, both for their technological achievement and because people seem to find the robots outright terrifying at times.
One of the company's offerings, Atlas, is a bipedal robot capable of climbing stairs, navigating obstacles, and performing unheard of feats of balance for a robot.
The company's latest offering, Handle (see video below) is a 6.5-foot-tall robot that uses a combination of wheels and legs. It has a top speed of up to 9 miles per hour and is capable of jumping 4 feet vertically to leap over and traverse obstacles.
In 2013 Alphabet acquired Boston Dynamics to add to its portfolio at Google X, as part of a new robotics division formed at the time with the goal of developing a consumer robot technology. However, shortly after it was established rumors began to stir that Google's robotics division, comprised of a total of about 10 robotics companies acquired by Google, was struggling. Reports began coming in of leadership issues, as well as saying that Boston Dynamics engineers and Google's own robotics engineers were having difficulty integrating and working together. It seems that the Boston Dynamics team did not completely agree with Google's ambitions to make a humanoid robot for consumer use. In 2016 Google announced it was putting Boston Dynamics up for sale, saying that it did not believe the company would generate revenue in a time frame acceptable for Google.
Word of the sale attracted high-profile potential buyers including Toyota and Amazon, but in the end SoftBank won out. As part of its transaction with Alphabet, SoftBank also announced it is also acquiring another company from Google's robotics division – Schaft, a Japanese company, specializing in bipedal robots, notable for winning the trials of the inaugural DARPA Robotics Challenge in 2013.
Traditionally a telecom and Internet company, SoftBank has been making big plays into the emerging technology space in recent years. In September 2016 SoftBank created a big stir in the technology industry when it finalize its acquisition of UK-based semiconductor giant ARM.
SoftBank established its own robotics division in 2014, after acquiring French robotics company Aldebaran, makers of Pepper, an open-source, humanoid robot designed to interact with humans by recognizing voice and emotions.
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Chris Wiltz is the Managing Editor of Design News.