When Android founder Andy Rubin announced that he was leaving the Android team back in May of this year, it was a shock to say the least. At the time Mr. Rubin confirmed that he was staying with Google itself, but declined to say what his new role would be. Six months later, a report from the New York Times seems to have the first information on what he's been doing. I'll give you a hint: it's robots.
Photo credit: Jim Wilson/New York Times
Yes, robots. That's not some kind of corporate codename for a new hardware platform running Android, we're talking about actual robots. Industrial robots, specifically: according to the NYT report, Google has quietly acquired no less than seven robotics companies, some which were barely in the startup phase, to bolster a new team of engineers and software developers headed by Rubin. The aim is to explore untapped markets in manufacturing and logistics, which Rubin says are not being served by conventional robotics technology.
US and Japanese companies have been folded into the new team, including robot camera specialists Bot & Dolly and Industrial Perception, robot developers Schaft, Meka Robotics, and Redwood Robotics, and design firms Autofuss and Holomni. At least some of these companies are focused on humanoid robots, or at least they were before being acquired. Google's precise intention might not be clear, but their resolve certainly is. Two separate offices in Palo Alto and Japan will combine efforts with these newly-acquired companies and seasoned Google employees in either a new Google sub-group (like the secretive X-Labs behind Google Glass) or a subsidiary.
The M1 Mobile Manipulator, a four-foot tall humanoid robot capable of basic manipulation tasks, built by Meka Robotics. Google acquired Meka sometime in the last six months.
Automation in general and robotics in particular are a booming speculative market - just ask Google's driverless car team, or Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, who recently unveiled a plan to deliver packages via automated flying drones. Google's effort would be less dramatic since it's aimed at industrial and business-to-business markets, and the New York Times reports that several specialists are guessing that it's related to automating portions of the supply chain.
For his part, Rubin is no stranger to the robotics field. He worked as a robotics engineer for high-end optics manufacturer Carl Zeiss AG from 1986 to 1989, ten years before he co-founded Danger and started working in the mobile sector. Rubin told The Times that he has become frustrated with the complexities of the consumer electronics industry, and hopes that the new robotics venture will be different, focusing on pure hardware and software.
The New York Times report is extensive, but for the moment Rubin is keeping nearly all the details of Google's new robotics venture close to the chest. In a tacit confirmation of the information in the report (what little there is of it), Google's current CEO Larry Page linked to the NYT article from his Google+ account.