Navigant Research Blog

Google Robots: More About the Patents Than the Products

— December 18, 2013

Google has quietly bought up more than eight bleeding-edge robotics companies in the last 6 months.  They include Bot and Dolly, a designer of robotic camera systems, Boston Dynamics, the creator of the famous Big Dog, and Industrial Perception, an machine learning engineering firm.  Clearly, the Mountain View, California-based search giant is planning a big move in robotics.  But it might not be what everyone is expecting.

While the head of the robot blitz, Andy Rubin, has declared that a Google robotics product will be available soon, that might end up being more of a sideshow than the real goal.  The prize for Google in this shopping spree is in the patents, not the people or the products.  That’s because, it’s my belief that, Google’s primary interest is in creating the operating system for the next generation of robots, not the robots themselves.

Rubin has always been obsessed with robot design.  In 2003 he chose the name for his photography software startup, Android Inc., as an homage to his obsession with robotics.  A year later, the company pivoted to a different business model: smartphone software.  Bought by Google in 2005, the platform that Rubin and his team created became the Android Operating System, a multibillion dollar enterprise, which is Google’s primary engine of profit growth today.

Android, Again

I believe that Rubin is returning to his original passion: creating a universal software platform for robotics.  If that is what he is doing, then it would make sense that Google’s executives and board of directors would fund it.  After all, the biggest obstacle to the ability of Android (the mobile phone OS) to completely take over the smartphone industry are the patents they don’t own that are required to make Android phones work.  Apple’s phones have some functional advantages that are protected by its patents.  And Microsoft gets more money from Google’s royalty payments for its smartphone patents than it gets from its own smartphone operating system.  This is all because Google was slightly late to the smartphone party.  It doesn’t want to be late to the next big thing.

A bigger clue as to where Google is going with this is in another of its robotic ventures: autonomous vehicles. That’s an area near and dear to our hearts here at Navigant Research because we published our first report on the topic, Autonomous Vehicles, in November. The search giant puzzled the world in 2010 when it divulged that it was experimenting with driverless cars. After the announcement, a few tittering articles were written about Google becoming a car company, but that hasn’t happened. Instead, Google has been hiring the brightest minds in the field of autonomous vehicles, getting them to invent things, and then salting away the patent trove. At some point, the income stream from those royalty payments will be considerable, all without Google ever having to learn how to bend steel.

So my best guess is that Google will utilize the talent it has acquired in the eight robotics company acquisitions (as well as many more that have probably been made that have so far gone unreported) to make a few flashy products.  Maybe it will be a disaster recovery robot or a land mine detection robot.  But the real treasure for the company will be sitting in the file cabinets of the U.S.  Patent and Trademark Office, where the more than 600 patents (according to my initial count) that go along with those acquired companies, will be sitting, waiting for this robotics thing to take off.


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