Google’s Mass. buy puts robotics in focus
Stock of iRobot soars after search giant buys another big player in the industry
Bedford-based iRobot is loving Google right now.
In the few days since the Silicon Valley search giant bought the Waltham robotics company Boston Dynamics for an undisclosed sum, iRobot Corp. stock has surged, up 17.3 percent on Tuesday alone.
Google Inc., it seems, has woken up Wall Street to the fact that robots are everywhere these days — in homes and warehouses, on factory floors and the war front, in hospitals.
And if Google is interested, there must be riches in robotics.
Its acquisition of Boston Dynamics, whose animal- and human-shaped robots combine futuristic design with remarkably lifelike movements, follows Google’s decision to buy seven other companies involved in robotics.
The company has also put Andy Rubin, the Google executive who helped create the Android operating system for mobile devices, in charge of its new robotic endeavors.
“It really validates what is going on in the robotics industry,” said Tom Ryden, chief operating officer of VGo Communications Inc., a Nashua robot maker. “Google is not going to do something small. If they are getting into this, they believe it is a large market.”
And it’s not just public companies such as iRobot that will benefit, he said. Google’s interest will probably give small and large robot makers alike more prominence, whether they’re making pitches to customers or to potential investors.
“I think it’s going to float everyone's boat in the robotics industry,” said Ryden, whose company has raised $18 million in funding and has sold hundreds of robots for remote video-teleconferencing in hospitals and schools.
There’s something of a robot renaissance going on, said Frank Tobe, editor of The Robot Report, an industry blog. It’s not just Google buying into the idea, either. Amazon.com recently unveiled a prototype flying robot, or drone, for making deliveries. And Microsoft Corp. and Apple Inc. are quietly getting more involved in robotics, Tobe said.
“It’s happening because people are starting to see clearly that robots are cheaper, functionally faster than they’ve ever been, more capable than they’ve ever been, and people can conceive of using them in their shops and factories.”
Massachusetts has one of the largest concentrations in the nation of companies and researchers involved in robotics. Some 100 robotics companies are based in the state, and the industry employees more than 3,200 people, according to the Mass Technology Leadership Council, an industry group. In total, the state’s robotics companies reported almost $2 billion in sales in 2011 and $52.4 million in private investment.
And their range varies greatly. Some robots perform household chores, such as iRobot’s Roomba; others do assembly line work, such as the Baxter robot from Boston’s Rethink Robotics. One of the area’s newest robotics companies, CyPhy Works Inc., makes dronelike spy robots.
“What Google has done is interesting in that it puts a spotlight on the practical robot industry, which is good for us,” said Colin Angle, chief executive of iRobot. “The robot industry doesn’t necessarily get the respect it deserves.”
For instance, he said, “iRobot is often cast as a vacuum cleaner company, which is absurd.” It also makes bomb-removal robots for the military that have been used in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as video-conferencing robots for offices and hospitals.
Angle doesn’t believe Google is out to drain Massachusetts of its robotics talent. After all, the California company already has a sizeable presence in Cambridge, built in part by buying local companies, such as ITA Software, the online travel search firm.
“The negative is an independent robotics company was bought by an out-of-state company, but the positive is that a Massachusetts company was most likely acquired for talent and technology,” Angle said. “It’s likely that we’ll see Boston Dynamics stay and grow in Massachusetts.”
Since it was founded by former Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Marc Raibert in 1992, Boston Dynamics has become known for producing a wild assortment of odd and ambling robots with millions in funding from the government. There’s BigDog, a four-legged robot that can haul heavy loads; Cheetah, the fastest robot on legs; and Atlas, a humanoid robot.
Atlas is the current wonder of the robot world, even the subject of an extraordinary challenge put on by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, as a way to encourage uses of humanoid-type robots in disaster situations. Both MIT and Worcester Polytechnic Institute have student teams who will put Atlas through its paces. The 6-foot- tall, 330-pound robot will perform such tasks as climbing a ladder and using power tools — which shouldn’t be a problem for a robot that can already drive a car.
What Google will do with Atlas, BigDog, and their metallic colleagues is somewhat of a mystery. As is typical, Google did not respond to requests for comment. The company usually keeps its more futuristic projects, such as space exploration, under tight wraps.
Angle, of iRobot, thinks he has a pretty good idea. Much as Amazon.com is developing robots to deliver packages, he suspects that Google is working on some kind of home delivery system and will borrow some of the robot-walking technology from Boston Dynamics.
And if Google can make it to the door, he said, “we hope to have millions of robots in the home, ready to answer.”