It’s been a little over two years since Google jumped into robotics with both feet. In 2013, the company (since reorganized as Alphabet) bought eight of the most interesting robotics companies in the world. But since that shopping spree, we haven’t been treated to many project updates.
So, it’s always a treat to see what the companies are up to these days.
Recently, at the New Economic Summit (NEST) in Tokyo, we got a pretty cool (if brief) tour of the world of Schaft—one of Google’s 2013 acquisitions—when Schaft CEO Yuto Nakanishi invited two bipedal robots up on stage with him and showed a video of the bots.
The highlights? The robots take a long walk on the beach, hike up steep wooded terrain, and trudge through snow. They can climb stairs, carry loads, and at one point, are shown cleaning up.
Details about the robots are still sparse and a spokesperson told IEEE Spectrum the presentation “wasn’t a product announcement or indication of a specific product roadmap. The team was simply delighted to have a chance to show their latest progress.”
What we do we know? The robot (as yet nameless) is meant to be practical, affordable, and energy efficient. The video shows it can carry heavy loads and keep its balance on uneven terrain and uncertain footing—a necessary but notoriously difficult feat for two-legged robots.
Also, the design is an interesting twist reminiscent of Interstellar's TARS robot. Instead of exactly mimicking a human body plan, the Schaft robot is all legs. Its center of gravity—including heavy stuff, like batteries and motors—sits between its legs, presumably allowing for simpler control and balance.
However, unlike other advanced bipedal designs—like Boston Dynamics’ Atlas—the robot currently lacks arms to manipulate its environment. Boston Dynamics, another of Google’s eight acquisitions, also recently posted a video of their latest version of Atlas. Two of the highlights of the video showed the robot picking up and stacking boxes and using its arms to stand up after falling down.
That said, as noted above, the Schaft robot is still in development.
A spinout of the University of Tokyo’s JSK Robotics Laboratory, Schaft dominated the DARPA Robotics Challenge trials in late 2013. Google later pulled it from the competition, and we haven’t heard much since. Brief as it is, this is a welcome glimpse of recent progress.
Also, the focus on practical tasks in the video seems to back up Google’s larger push for near-term applications in its robotics efforts. Not long after the Boston Dynamics video post—which kicked up robot fear and empathy in equal measure—it was reported Google is looking to sell Boston Dynamics. Other reports have indicated organizational challenges over the last few years. Andy Rubin, who headed up the effort early on, left the company in 2014.
Schaft was moved from Google to X (formerly Google X) last December, and it would seem Alphabet’s plans are in flux as they reevaluate some of the prime challenges facing today’s most advanced robots, but clearly, they haven’t halted all work just yet.
Image credit: Schaft/mehdi_san/YouTube