Skip to Content

Google’s Latest Robot Acquisition Is the Smartest Yet

In buying Boston Dynamics, Google has gained an impressive edge in robot locomotion.
December 14, 2013

Google’s remarkable push into robotics continued today with the acquisition of Boston Dynamics, a particularly exciting—and potentially important—company.

Speed machine: WildCat is capable of running faster than any person.

Boston Dynamics creates legged robots with eerily lifelike running and balancing abilities. These machines are more than just spectacular feats of engineering, though; they embody a powerful approach to robot locomotion that might have an big impact on the way future machines move around our world. 

Google is making a big drive into robotics. It has acquired seven other other robotics startups in recent months as part of an effort led by Andy Rubin, the man who previously led the development of the Android mobile operating system (see “Why Google Is Buying So Many Robotics Startups”). Google hasn’t yet said what it plans to do with the robotics technologies it has acquired, but they include manipulation, vision, and other areas of innovation that are likely to become increasingly important. Although Boston Dynamics’ machines can bound across wild terrain and run at great speed, the approach the company has pioneered could be useful for more mundane purposes, like climbing a flight of stairs or staying balanced when accidentally shoved.

Boston Dynamics was founded by Marc Raibert, a roboticist who developed a new approach to legged locomotion in the 1980s and led research labs at CMU and MIT dedicated to building walking machines. At a time when most walking robots were rigid and moved slowly, Raibert sought to mimic biology, devising engineering principles that made it possible for machines to remain stable on uneven or treacherous terrain. Like living creatures, Raibert’s robots moved quickly and continually, storing energy in their limbs. His first dynamic robot was a one-legged machine that kept from falling over simply by moving its leg as it bounced around.

Raibert left MIT and founded Boston Dynamics in 1992, initially to develop simulation software. But the company soon began building robots based on his dynamic balancing ideas. Its YouTube videos show the astonishingly lifelike results: a St. Bernard-sized four-legged robot, called BigDog, walking across all sorts of treacherous terrain, and a slightly larger robot, called WildCat, running about the company’s car park at about 30 kilometers per hour. Most recently, Boston Dynamics developed a humanoid robot called Atlas for a DARPA challenge designed to foster the development of robots that can perform rescue missions in environments like Fukushima (see “Meet Atlas, the Robot Designed to Save the Day”). Most of these robots were developed largely with funding from the military.

The technologies developed by Boston Dynamics could be significant because most robots cannot cover uneven terrain. The few mobile robots that exist today, such as the bomb-disposal bots used by the military, tend to travel using wheels or tracks. 

In recent weeks I’ve visited Boston Dynamics several times to see Altas, WildCat, and other Boston Dynamics robots in action. Significant challenges remain, including making its hydraulic actuators more efficient and making its robots quieter. But the company is already making impressive strides in these areas.

“It has been a great time at Boston Dynamics, getting the robots this far along,” Raibert told me via e-mail. “Now we are excited to see how far we can take things as part of Google.”

Keep Reading

Most Popular

individual aging affects covid outcomes concept
individual aging affects covid outcomes concept

Anti-aging drugs are being tested as a way to treat covid

Drugs that rejuvenate our immune systems and make us biologically younger could help protect us from the disease’s worst effects.

Europe's AI Act concept
Europe's AI Act concept

A quick guide to the most important AI law you’ve never heard of

The European Union is planning new legislation aimed at curbing the worst harms associated with artificial intelligence.

Uber Autonomous Vehicles parked in a lot
Uber Autonomous Vehicles parked in a lot

It will soon be easy for self-driving cars to hide in plain sight. We shouldn’t let them.

If they ever hit our roads for real, other drivers need to know exactly what they are.

crypto winter concept
crypto winter concept

Crypto is weathering a bitter storm. Some still hold on for dear life.

When a cryptocurrency’s value is theoretical, what happens if people quit believing?

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose WongIllustration by Rose Wong

Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review

Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.

Thank you for submitting your email!

Explore more newsletters

It looks like something went wrong.

We’re having trouble saving your preferences. Try refreshing this page and updating them one more time. If you continue to get this message, reach out to us at customer-service@technologyreview.com with a list of newsletters you’d like to receive.