While countless real humans were battling it out for parking spaces at shopping destinations during the weekend before Christmas, 16 human-scaled robots were battling it out on the field at the Homestead-Miami Speedway for a chance to win a $2 million prize. Japan's Schaft, recently acquired by Google (NASDAQ: GOOG ) , clobbered the competition and advanced to next year's finals, along with seven other teams.
This is not only a cool event, but it also has a timely business angle, since Google's been gobbling up robotics companies of late. Given that fellow tech titans Amazon.com (NASDAQ: AMZN ) and Apple have also been "robotic-ing" it up, robotics looks like it's shaping up to be one of 2014's hot spaces.
Olympics for the robotics set
The DARPA Robotics Challenge Trials was held Dec. 20 and 21; DARPA is the U.S. Defense Department's research arm, and it funds many initiatives that have not only national security and related implications, but often commercial ones, too.
The goal of this Olympics-for-the-robotics-set is to help speed along development of human-scaled robots to be used in disaster response missions. Robots obviously can safely access areas that are too hazardous for humans to access. Recent disasters, such as Japan's Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant meltdown, spurred DARPA on to develop this challenge.
The trials were the second of three competitions, following last June's Virtual Robotics Challenge, which tested software teams' abilities to guide a simulated robot through tasks in a virtual environment. In the Trials, 16 teams -- from academia and the corporate world -- guided their robots through eight individual physical tasks, such as climbing a ladder, clearing debris, and using a fire hose. These tasks tested mobility, dexterity, perception, and operator-control mechanisms.
Schaft, the Japanese robotics company Google bought earlier in the month, dominated the competition, with its Schaft robot scoring 27 out of a possible 32 points to easily clinch first place.
While Schaft's limbs might resemble a Rock 'Em Sock 'Em robot in the following video, its nearly 5-foot-6-inch frame, which carries its 190 pounds, makes it a far cry from the Mattel toy's scale. Check out Schaft in action, as this is one impressive robot. (The video clip is mostly in fast motion, so you'll see Schaft performing all the tasks in less than two minutes.)
The seven other teams that advanced to next year's finals, and are also eligible for continued funding, are IHMS Robotics (20 points); Tartan Rescue, the team from Carnegie Mellon University with its CHIMP robot (18); MIT (16); NASA's Jet Propulsion Labs, with its RoboSimian (14); TRACLabs (11); WRECS, a teaming of Worchester Polytechnic Institute and Carnegie Mellon University; (11); and Team Trooper from Lockheed Martin (9). Lockheed is the only publicly traded company in this group.
DARPA provided Atlas robots -- made by Boston Dynamics, another company Google snapped up earlier in December -- to teams in the software-only track, which include IHMS, MIT, WRECS, and Trooper.
Schaft and the other winners will meet again in the DRC Finals next December to compete for the $2 million prize. The finals will involve a circuit of consecutive physical tasks, with degraded communications between the robots and their operators.
Google's robotic army ... or at least close to a football team
Google has been on a robotics company buying spree in 2013, acquiring at least eight companies in the last six months.
Schaft and Boston Dynamics were perfectly timed acquisitions, with Google just announcing the week before the trials that it was buying these companies. Schaft's easy win, plus four teams using Atlas robots placing in the advancing eight, surely brought some good publicity to Big G, which is looking like it might do with advanced robots what it did with search -- dominate.
Both these robotics companies have impressive pedigrees. Schaft was recently formed by a group of students who studied at a University of Tokyo lab, where eminent early roboticist Hirochinka Inoue began working in the field in the 1960s, and led the development of humanoid robots that could walk and manipulate objects in the mid-1990s.
Boston Dynamics was started by former MIT professor Marc Raibert. Its Atlas robot is one of the most advanced humanoid robots, and the company also produces several ultra-fast animal-like bots, such as the Wildcat, which can run at 16 miles per hour, and the aptly named Cheetah, which can reach speeds of 28.3 mph.
While Google hasn't said much about its plans for its growing army of robots, there's buzz that it intends to use them in its delivery service. I think that speculation makes sense. If this does prove to be the case, Google and Amazon could eventually be competing in this space, as Amazon recently made headlines by announcing that it plans to use drones to deliver packages of up to 5 pounds on deliveries less than 10 miles. This would reportedly allow for deliveries in as little as 30 minutes. The Federal Aviation Administration doesn't yet have rules pertaining to drones, so the earliest Amazon's delivery bots could hit the skies would be 2015.
It's also been suggested by some, including The New York Times, that Google could use robots in its Motorola unit's manufacturing operations. That, too, makes sense to me. However, I think it's unlikely Google's plans extend beyond its own facilities in the manufacturing sector. Google's a consumer-focused company, and it seems likely it will remain so. Additionally, there appears to be good synergy between robotics and Google's delivery service, its Uber car service company acquired in August, and its driverless-vehicle efforts. It's certainly within the realm of possibilities that robots could operate vehicles used for delivery and taxi services.
2014: The year of the robot?
It's too early to tell how -- and to what degree -- Google will profit from its robotics army. However, it seems safe to say that with Google, along with Amazon and Apple, investing big in robotics, that robotics is shaping up to be a hot sector. Investors looking for yet another reason to consider buying Google might have found one.
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