Google Leaves the DARPA Robotics Challenge, Robots, Robots, and More Robots!

Google is thought by many to be the front-runner in robotics. The company’s interest in robotics is huge indeed; it’s in the “Robotics Business Review’s Top 50 List” (RBR50). RBR50 is a list of the most influential pubic and private companies in the global robotics industry (quote from “About the RBR50).

In 2003 Google acquired seven (7) awesome and technologically diverse robotics companies: Boston Dynamics, Bot & Dolly, Holomni, Industrial Perception, Meka Robotics, Redwood Robotics, and Schaft, Inc. At the end of this post I’ll add some cool videos about each company’s robots.

Google pulled its “Team Schaft” HRP-2 robot out of the Pentagon-funded DARPA Robotics Challenge (DRC). Although the 3-year competition is less than halfway finished, the Schaft robot was the obvious front-runner. Tokyo-based Schaft, Inc. was founded specifically to enter in the $2M DRC and easily won the qualifying event in 2013. However, now with Google owning Schaft, accepting money from the DoD is against Google’s stance on not accepting military contracts (quote from

Google's HRP-2 Schaft Robot

Google’s HRP-2 Schaft Robot


This action doesn’t necessarily reflect Google’s ethics or corporate philosophies. It seems to be more of an issue of where the biggest markets are for these robots. “Team Schaft” stated rather than developing their robots for the military, they’re going to focus on developing their first commercial product.

The HRP-2 Schaft robot does some pretty amazing things, however! Take a look at this YouTube video:

Schaft DARPA Robotics Challenge 8 Tasks + Special Walking VIDEO

Schaft DARPA Robotics Challenge 8 Tasks + Special Walking VIDEO

I have first-hand knowledge of the problems of robots climbing stairs: they can’t. This is a big problem using current commercial robots in medical clinical laboratories. I volunteer some of my time to help the Medical Automated Research Center (MARC) based at the University of California, Irvine directly with the program’s CEO Dr. Don Nagy. MARC is a large collection of universities and research facilities founded by Dr. Felder of the University of Virginia and 2 others. MARCs members exceeds 200 and spans 5 countries; many members are also members of the Society For Laboratory Automation and Screening, “…where science and technology unite“. I began consulting with them on using Google Glass #googleglass and teleoperations to drive their current robots in January, 2014. I was introduced to Dr. Felder in February, 2014. To learn about Medical Robotics and Medicine, watch the video below (it’s entertaining in many ways!):

My First Conference Call Consulting MARC and Dr. Felder on Using Google Glass in Medical Robotic Scenarios VIDEO

My First Conference Call Consulting MARC and Dr. Felder on Using Google Glass in Medical Robotic Scenarios VIDEO

Because the current robots can’t climb stairs, specimens are removed from the robot and put on AR Drone Quadricopters to fly to the various laboratories that are on other floors of the building – an extra step and extra equipment.

AR Drone Quadricopter

AR Drone Quadricopter

There’s a couple of interesting side notes I’d like to add here.

Ever since the Schaft HRP-2 robot left the DARPA competition, the challenges of the competition have become more difficult. All competing teams now need to have their robots work wirelessly and without human intervention, as well as complete the course all at once, rather than one at a time. And, if a robot falls and it can’t get up, it’s immediately out of the competition.

Lastly, Google still has an indirect connection to the DARPA Robotics Challenge, because one of the seven robotics companies mentioned in the first paragraph – Boston Dynamics – developed the Atlas Robot that many of the teams are using in the competition.

Looks like Google is into Robotics alright! Extremely awesome robotics!

As promised, below are some uber-cool videos of the robotics companies Google has acquired mentioned in the first paragraph of this post: Boston DynamicsBot & DollyHolomniIndustrial PerceptionMeka RoboticsRedwood Robotics, and Schaft, Inc.

  1. Boston Dynamics has the following robots currently: LS3 (Legged Squad Support System), Atlas (The Agile Anthropomorphic Robot), PETMAN (Anthropomorphic Robot designed for testing chemical protective clothing), Cheetah (Fastest Legged Robot), BigDog (The Most Advanced Rough-Terrain Robot on Earth), SandFlea (Leaps Small Buildings in a Single Bound!), RHex (Devours Rough Terrain), Ri SE (The Amazing Climbing Robot), and LittleDog (The Legged Locomotion Learning Robot).
  • The LS3 is a rough-terrain robot designed to go anywhere Marines and Soldiers go on foot, helping carry their load. Each LS3 carries up to 400 lbs of gear and enough fuel for a 20-mile mission lasting 24 hours. LS3 automatically follows its leader using computer vision, so it does not need a dedicated driver. It also travels to designated locations using terrain sensing and GPS. LS3 began a 2-year field testing phase in 2012:
Boston Dynamics' LS3 Robot VIDEO

Boston Dynamics’ LS3 Robot VIDEO

  • The Atlas is a high mobility, humanoid robot designed to negotiate outdoor, rough terrain. Atlas can walk bipedally leaving the upper limbs free to lift, carry, and manipulate the environment. In extremely challenging terrain, Atlas is strong and coordinated enough to climb using hands and feet, to pick its way through congested spaces. Articulated, sensate hands will enable Atlas to use tools designed for human use. Atlas includes 28 hydraulically-actuated degrees of freedom, two hands, arms, legs, feet and a torso. An articulated sensor head includes stereo cameras and a laser range finder. Atlas is powered from an off-board, electric power supply via a flexible tether:
Boston Dynamics' Atlas Robot VIDEO

Boston Dynamics’ Atlas Robot VIDEO

  • The PETMAN is an anthropomorphic robot designed for testing chemical protection clothing. Natural agile movement is essential for PETMAN to simulate how a soldier stresses protective clothing under realistic conditions. Unlike previous suit testers that had a limited repertoire of motion and had to be supported mechanically, PETMAN balances itself and moves freely; walking, bending and doing a variety of suit-stressing calisthenics during exposure to chemical warfare agents. PETMAN also simulates human physiology within the protective suit by controlling temperature, humidity and sweating, all to provide realistic test conditions:
Boston Dynamics' PETMAN Robot VIDEO

Boston Dynamics’ PETMAN Robot VIDEO

  • The Cheetah robot is the fastest legged robot in the World, surpassing 29 mph, a new land speed record for legged robots. The previous record was 13.1 mph, set in 1989 at MIT. The Cheetah robot has an articulated back that flexes back and forth on each step, increasing its stride and running speed, much like the animal does. The current version of the Cheetah robot runs on a high-speed treadmill in the laboratory where it is powered by an off-board hydraulic pump and uses a boom-like device to keep it running in the center of the treadmill. The next generation Cheetah robot, WildCat, is designed to operate untethered (this is a funny video to watch!):
Boston Dynamics' Cheeta Robot VIDEO

Boston Dynamics’ Cheeta Robot VIDEO

(And here’s a video of WildCat, mentioned in the above snippet on Cheeta. WildCat is a four-legged robot being developed to run fast on all types of terrain. So far WildCat has run at about 16 mph on flat terrain using bounding and galloping gaits. The video shows WildCat’s best performance so far):

Boston Dynamics' WildCat VIDEO

Boston Dynamics’ WildCat VIDEO

  • BigDog is a rough-terrain robot that walks, runs, climbs and carries heavy loads. BigDog is powered by an engine that drives a hydraulic actuation system. BigDog has four legs that are articulated like an animal’s, with compliant elements to absorb shock and recycle energy from one step to the next. BigDog is the size of a large dog or small mule; about 3 feet long, 2.5 feet tall and weighs 240 lbs. BigDog’s on-board computer controls locomotion, processes sensors and handles communications with the user. BigDog’s control system keeps it balanced, manages locomotion on a wide variety of terrains and does navigation. Sensors for locomotion include joint position, joint force, ground contact, ground load, a gyroscope, LIDAR and a stereo vision system. Other sensors focus on the internal state of BigDog, monitoring the hydraulic pressure, oil temperature, engine functions, battery charge and others. BigDog runs at 4 mph, climbs slopes up to 35 degrees, walks across rubble, climbs muddy hiking trails, walks in snow and water, and carries 340 lb load:
Boston Dynamics' BigDog VIDEO

Boston Dynamics’ BigDog VIDEO

  • SandFlea is an 11 pound robot that drives like an RC car on flat terrain, but can jump 30 ft into the air to overcome obstacles. That is high enough to jump over a compound wall, onto the roof of a house, up a set of stairs or into a second story window. The robot uses gyro stabilization to stay level during flight, to provide a clear view from the onboard camera, and to ensure a smooth landing. Sand Flea can jump about 25 times on one charge:
Boston Dynamics' SandFlea VIDEO

Boston Dynamics’ SandFlea VIDEO

  • RHex is a six-legged robot with inherently high mobility. Powerful, independently controlled legs produce specialized gaits that devour rough terrain with minimal operator input. RHex climbs in rock fields, mud, sand, vegetation, railroad tracks, telephone poles and up slopes and stairways. RHex has a sealed body, making it fully operational in wet weather, muddy and swampy conditions. RHex’s remarkable terrain capabilities have been validated in government-run independent testing. RHex is controlled remotely from an operator control unit at distances up to 700 meters. Visible/IR cameras and illuminators provide front and rear views from the robot:
Boston Dynamics' RHex Robot VIDEO

Boston Dynamics’ RHex Robot VIDEO

  • RiSE is a robot that climbs vertical terrain such as walls, trees and fences. RiSE uses feet with micro-claws to climb on textured surfaces. RiSE changes posture to conform to the curvature of the climbing surface and its tail helps RiSE balance on steep ascents. RiSE is 0.25 m long, weighs 2 kg, and travels 0.3 m/s. Each of RiSE’s six legs is powered by a pair of electric motors. An onboard computer controls leg motion, manages communications, and services a variety of sensors, including joint position sensors, leg strain sensors and foot contact sensors:
Boston Dynamics' RiSE Robot VIDEO

Boston Dynamics’ RiSE Robot VIDEO

  • LittleDog is a quadruped robot designed for research on learning locomotion. Scientists at leading institutions use LittleDog to probe the fundamental relationships among motor learning, dynamic control, perception of the environment, and rough-terrain locomotion. LittleDog is used at MIT, Stanford, Carnegie Mellon, USC, Univ. Pennsylvania and IHMC as part of a DARPA-funded program on advanced robotics. LittleDog has four legs, each powered by three electric motors. The legs have a large range of motion. The robot is strong enough for climbing and dynamic locomotion gaits. The onboard PC-level computer does sensing, actuator control and communications. LittleDog’s sensors measure joint angles, motor currents, body orientation and foot/ground contact. Control programs access the robot through the Boston Dynamics Robot API. Onboard lithium polymer batteries allow for 30 minutes of continuous operation without recharging. Wireless communications and data logging support remote operation and data analysis:
Boston Dynamics' LittleDog VIDEO

Boston Dynamics’ LittleDog VIDEO

2. Bot & Dolly is a design and engineering studio specializing in automation, robotics and filmmaking. Central to their craft are sophisticated industrial robots, unshackled from the factory floor, set free on the likes of movie sets to manipulate lights, actors, cameras and set pieces with the most precise, coordinated and complex motions that are also infinitely repeatable. The magic in their world unfolds in real time where an unprecedented level of precision and predictability allows virtuality and physicality to meet and synchronize perfectly on a live set. Their creations include Box (Projection-Mapping on Moving Objects), IRIS (Motion Control Platform, the movie “Gravity” used IRIS), SCOUT (like IRIS but scrappier and faster), Halo Remember Reach (a Point of Light to help realize the monument), the Chevy Sonic Street Art Car (the first ever robotic car), Kinetisphere (multi-sensory, multi-user participatory experience) and more.

  • Box is a live performance film (using IRIS) where for the first time ever robots, actors and 3D projection mapping perform in sync on a live set transcends what has been seen to date. In short, it’s revolutionary. With this latest proof of concept, two years in the making, Bot & Dolly have taken the old adage of thinking out of the box about as far as you can go by getting rid of the box altogether. Bot & Dolly produced this work to serve as both an artistic statement and technical demonstration. It is the culmination of multiple technologies, including large scale robotics, projection mapping, and software engineering:
Bot & Dolly's Box VIDEO

Bot & Dolly’s Box VIDEO

  • IRIS is the world’s most advanced Robotic motion control camera system. It combines the accuracy of modern robotics with the flexibility and reach required to capture not just one technical shot but every one of them. This is probably the easiest way to keep the camera where you want it to be, at the time where you want it to be, again and again. IRIS is not just a platform for camera control it automates the entire set. Lights, actors and set pieces are moved in perfect synchronization, then you watch them matching your CG elements in real time. It just needs an intuitive touch interface to trigger hardware, automate cues and coordinate across departments. IRIS is developed for the professional filmmaker and combines with industry-standard software and hardware and includes features required for any professional film production such as real-time composite, playback, data management and rock-solid stability:
Bot & Dolly's IRIS Robotic Motion Control Camera System VIDEO

Bot & Dolly’s IRIS Robotic Motion Control Camera System VIDEO

  • SCOUT has the same intelligence and charm of it’s larger sibling IRIS, but scrappier and even faster. SCOUT dramatically increases creative possibilities for tabletop and high-speed shoots. Stunningly quick, articulate and obedient, the compact system is ideal for live action and innovative stop-motion cinematography:
Bot & Dolly's SCOUT Robotic Motion Control Camera System VIDEO

Bot & Dolly’s SCOUT Robotic Motion Control Camera System VIDEO

  • Halo Remember Reach is a point of light that helped realize the monument – made by Bot & Dolly for Microsoft:
Bot & Dolly's Halo Remember Reach VIDEO

Bot & Dolly’s Halo Remember Reach VIDEO

  • The Chevy Sonic Street Art Car was “pimped my ride” with a paint canon, sprayer and 1500lb robot with custom controls. Graffiti artist Jeff Soto was able to create a another urban masterpiece by blending his own distinct style with the precision of the robot. The results were extraordinary and highlight B&D’s extensive engineering and fabrication capabilities for creative work:
Bot & Dolly's Chevy Sonic Street Art Car VIDEO

Bot & Dolly’s Chevy Sonic Street Art Car VIDEO

  • Kinetisphere, an interactive installation designed and built by San Francisco-based creative engineering studio, Bot & Dolly to celebrate the launch of Google’s Nexus Q seemed to steal the show at the recent Google I/O 2012. Based on what we’ve seen it certainly is memorable: An industrial Kuka robot deftly articulating an 8-foot, 300-pound diameter fiberglass replica of the Nexus Q with a visualizer ring of 6 mm pitch LEDs controlled by a signal coming out of TouchDesigner that’s reacting to the music as well:
Bot & Dolly's Kinetisphere (Nexus Q) VIDEO

Bot & Dolly’s Kinetisphere (Nexus Q) VIDEO

3. Holomni is a design firm specializing in robot wheels. A Holomni powered caster modules create holonomic omnidirectional vehicles. A Holomni powered vehicle can instantaneously produce omnidirectional accelerations and forces. Holomni has taken their website down, so all I have for you is an image of their wheels:

Holomni's Powered Caster Modules Image

Holomni’s Powered Caster Modules Image

4. Industrial Perception, Inc. has some of the world’s foremost authorities and pioneers in machine vision and artificial intelligence, working with a team of industrial automation experts to deliver cutting-­‐edge logistics solutions. IPI is a leader in 3D vision-­guided robot technology and enables industrial robots to assume challenging logistical tasks such as truck and container unloading, e-­commerce fulfillment and package sorting. The company’s patented software and advanced sensor technologies provide the capability to scan and model a dynamic 3D environment, identify and precisely locate objects, and optimize the robot’s trajectory to safely pick and deliver each object to its destination. There are 2 videos here, one showing IP’s robot arm seeing, modeling, and planning in 3D and another showing the robot arm working through a non-standard situation of poorly stacked boxes. You can see it imaging, thinking, re-adjusting its view—at one point it turns and stares at the camera—before finally choosing the top box to pick up and toss. (The robot can also pick up and stack boxes neatly, but for demo purposes, throwing them is more fun):

Industrial Perception's Robotic Arm Sees, Plans, & Models in 3D VIDEO

Industrial Perception’s Robotic Arm Sees, Plans, & Models in 3D VIDEO

Industrial Perception's Robot Navigating a Stack of Boxes, Imaging, Thinking, and Re-Adjusting View to Choose the Top Box to Pick Up & Toss  VIDEO

Industrial Perception’s Robot Navigating a Stack of Boxes, Imaging, Thinking, and Re-Adjusting View to Choose the Top Box to Pick Up & Toss VIDEO

5. MIT spinout Meka Robotics creates ‘sociable’ humanoids that could help advance human-robot interaction. Meka was an early creator of “compliant” humanoid robots that now work safely alongside humans in everyday environments — including factories and cramped research labs. Based on the co-founders’ work at MIT, Meka’s sleek robotics hardware included adult-size arms and hands, as well as heads, torsos, and full-body systems with advanced control innovations, such as spring-based Series Elastic Actuators (SEAs) that provide torque control and measurements at each joint. All of Meka’s robots run off Meka M3 and Robot Operating System software, which allow for real-time communication. Perhaps the company is most notable for its M1 Mobile Manipulator, a $340,000 robotic humanoid that combines all of Meka’s hardware. Designed to lift and carry objects, the M1’s arms move smoothly and are equipped with strong grippers and with SEAs that allow the arms to slow down upon human touch. A customizable pan-tilt head comes with a Kinect 3-D camera, along with other digital cameras, for sensing objects. Its base is an omnidirectional platform with a mechanical lift that allows the torso to move vertically. Dozens of researchers today use Meka’s robotic hardware and software in labs around the world for advanced robotics research. “These are hardware platforms for research labs to develop algorithms for mobile manipulation, social robotics, and human-robot interaction,” says Edsinger, who was Meka’s chief executive officer. Among Meka’s robotics are the Meka T2 Humanoid Torso, the S2 Humanoid Head, the M1 Mobile Manipulator, the H2 Compliant Hand, the B1 Omni Base, the A2 Compliant Arm, and more.

  • The Meka T2 Humanoid Torso is a two degree-of-freedom force controlled torso for a humanoid robot. It is design to increase the workspace of a Meka A2 bimanual manipulator system. Engineered for stability, safety, and reliability, the T2 system features high-strength force-controlled actuators, zero-backlash Harmonic Drive gearheads, integrated brake, and the Meka M3 real-time control system. In addition to a single left-right pan degree-of-freedom, the T2 torso has a unique back design that allows for natural, expressive postures. Driven by a single actuator, the two mechanically coupled back joints create a curved profile as it leans forward or backwards:
Meka's T2 Humanoid Torso VIDEO

Meka’s T2 Humanoid Torso VIDEO

  • Meka Robotics’ S2 Humanoid Head: It has seven degrees of freedom, high-resolution FireWire cameras in each eye, zero-backlash Harmonic Drive gearing in the neck, and a ton of unnervingly-human movements and postures. She weighs 7.6kg (16.7lbs), has a pair of luminous, waggling doggy-like ears, and can be attached to a Meka torso and arm, if you prefer your robots to be slightly more corporeal. The girly, anime face is just a custom skin, incidentally: Meka will customize the shell to look like anything you desire:
Meka's S1 Humanoid Head Image

Meka’s S1 Humanoid Head Image

Meka's S2 Humanoid Head VIDEO

Meka’s S2 Humanoid Head VIDEO

  • Meka’s M1 Mobile Manipulator, a humanoid system equipped with two dexterous arms, a head with Microsoft Kinect sensor, and an omnidirectional wheel base. The robot runs Meka’s real-time control software with ROS extensions:
Meka's M1 Mobile Manipulator, a $340,000.00 Robotic Humanoid VIDEO

Meka’s M1 Mobile Manipulator, a $340,000.00 Robotic Humanoid VIDEO

  • The Meka H2 Compliant Hand is a fully-contained five degree-of-freedom humanoid hand. It has a is approximately human size with intrinsic physical compliance and haptic feedback, making it ideal for researchers interested in dexterous manipulation within human environments. The H2 hand has a unique under-actuated design that provides remarkable dexterity. It has a total of 12 DOF controlled by 5 actuators. This also allows each finger to automatically adapt its shape to an object, thereby increasing the grasp contact area and stability. In addition, the fingers are very robust to impact and deformation due to their multi-durometer cast urethane construction. Each finger is driven by a Series Elastic Actuator. By placing a spring between the motor and the finger drive tendon, the H2 hand achieves high-fidelity control of the tendon force. This physical compliance also improves robustness to impacts and the ability to maintain stable force-closure during grasping:
Meka's H2 Compliant Hand VIDEO

Meka’s H2 Compliant Hand VIDEO

  • Meka’s B1 Omni Base is based on the Nomadic XR4000 design and uses Holomni’s powered casters. It is also integrated with the M3 realtime system and will have velocity, pose, and operational-space control available. The base houses a RTAI Ubuntu computer and can have up to two additional computers:
Meka's B1 Omni Base VIDEO

Meka’s B1 Omni Base VIDEO

  • The Meka A2 Compliant Arm is a lightweight seven degree-of-freedom force controlled arm. Designed to match the size and shape of a small adult, it is the ideal platform for researchers interested in manipulation for human environments. The A2 nearly matches the scale and workspace of a human arm. It features high-strength force-controlled actuators, intrinsic physical compliance, zero-backlash Harmonic Drive gearheads, and the Meka M3 real-time manipulation control system. The A2 is available as a single arm or as a bimanual manipulator. It provides plug-and-play support for the T2 Humanoid Torso, S2 or S3 head, and the G2 or H2 hand:
Meka's A2 Compliant Arm VIDEO

Meka’s A2 Compliant Arm VIDEO

6. The startup Redwood Robotics is a joint venture between Meka Robotics, Willow Garage, & SRI International. I could only find 1 image of their robot arm. Their goal was to make robot arms much less expensive than Meka’s:

Redwood Robotics Arm Image

Redwood Robotics Arm Image

7. Schaft is a Japanese company whose robot was mentioned and featured in an earlier video in this post (refer back if you’ve forgotten in this long post!) I’ll include an image here to refresh your memory:

Schaft's DARPA Robotics Challenge Robot Image

Schaft’s DARPA Robotics Challenge Robot Image

I hope you enjoyed reading, learning, and probably being amused at these cool robotic technologies acquired by Google. I can’t wait to see what their plans are and what they’re going to come out with in the Google X Division!


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