Google continues to scale back its robot ambitions with the news that it’s shutting down Schaft, a little-known Japanese robotics team purchased by Alphabet back in 2013.
Schaft was best known for its work developing advanced bipedal robotics. The firm had its origins in the University of Tokyo’s robotics lab, where engineers built bio-inspired robot legs with metal bones, muscles, and tendons. The team later moved to more conventional systems, modifying industrial robotics hardware to be more powerful and precise.
In 2013, the lab spin-off, Schaft, competed in (and won) DARPA’s Robotics Challenge, which tests robots’ ability to navigate disaster scenarios. The team claimed that their custom actuators (basically a robot’s muscles) were ten times stronger than competing designs. You can watch a video of Schaft’s S‐One robot competing in the DRC below:
Schaft was one of eight robotics firms that Alphabet acquired in 2013, a group that also included Boston Dynamics, best known for its flashy YouTube videos and animal-like robots. This flurry of purchases was led by Andy Rubin, the former head of Android who left Google in 2014 with a $90 million exit package after accusations of sexual harassment.
Rubin’s departure reportedly left a leadership vacuum in the company’s robot division (known as “Replicant” internally). According to Business Insider, the group had originally planned to release a consumer-orientated product before 2020, but soon found that the tech they’d bought was further from commercialization than they’d originally hoped.
So, in 2017, Google announced that it was selling Boston Dynamics and Schaft to SoftBank. The sale of Boston Dynamics went through, but according to a report from TechCrunch, certain conditions in the deal for Schaft were not fulfilled.
A spokesperson for Google’s parent company Alphabet told Nikkei: “Following Softbank’s decision not to move forward with the Schaft acquisition we explored many options but ultimately decided to wind down Schaft. We’re working with employees to help them find jobs elsewhere within or outside of Alphabet.”
TechCrunch says the sale is part of Google’s changing ambitions in robotics, which are now angled towards “non-humanoid robots and industry-led solutions such as robotic arms.” Schaft’s work certainly doesn’t seem to fit this vision. Its most recent robot prototype, shown off in 2016, was another bipedal creation, designed to navigate stairs and homes.
Despite this, it might be that Google lost its nerve too soon in the robotics game. Earlier this year Boston Dynamics announced plans to start selling its quadrupedal Spot Mini robot commercially in 2019. CEO Marc Raibert said he wanted the company’s bots to be a flexible and ubiquitous platform that other companies could build on. In other words, he said, it would be Android of robotics.