SoftBank Acquires Boston Dynamics and Schaft

The Japanese telecom giant picks up two of the most talented and innovative robotics companies in the world

4 min read
SoftBank's massive robot collection now includes Pepper, Boston Dynamics' BigDog and Handle, Schaft's S-One, and many more.
SoftBank's massive robot collection now includes Pepper, Boston Dynamics' BigDog and Handle, Schaft's S-One, and many more.
Image: IEEE Spectrum; Photos: Erico Guizzo/IEEE Spectrum, Boston Dynamics (2x), Schaft

We knew that Masayoshi Son, founder and CEO of telecom giant SoftBank, loved robots. Now the Japanese billionaire is about to significantly expand his collection.

Minutes ago, SoftBank announced that it will be acquiring Boston Dynamics and Schaft from Google parent Alphabet for an undisclosed sum, in order to “collaborate in advancing the development of smart robotics technologies.”

Boston Dynamics and Schaft were two of the nine robot companies that Google bought in 2013 to form the core of its robotics division, headed by Android founder Andy Rubin. As far as anyone could tell, not much happened after all those companies became part of Google, and not much continued to happen through 2016, much to the frustration of roboticists everywhere.

Boston Dynamics, led by legendary robot builder Marc Raibert, just kept on doing its own awesome thing, unveiling ever more agile and capable quadrupeds and humanoids, and Schaft, founded by a team of University of Tokyo engineers, quietly improved its bipedal robots, with a surprise sneak peak at a new dual-legged machine last April.

As Google’s robotics group (eventually swallowed up by Alphabet’s advanced tech division X) continued to not produce all that much and began slowly losing talent, the rumors were that Boston Dynamics in particular was looking for a new owner, and they’ve finally found one, in SoftBank.

Here’s the press release, which sadly will not tell you all that much more than our headline:

SoftBank Group Corp. today announced a subsidiary of SoftBank has entered into a definitive agreement to acquire robotics pioneer Boston Dynamics from Alphabet Inc. The transaction aligns with SoftBank’s investments in paradigm-shifting technologies and its vision of catalyzing the next wave of smart robotics. The terms of the transaction were not disclosed.

Masayoshi Son, Chairman & CEO of SoftBank Group Corp., said, “Today, there are many issues we still cannot solve by ourselves with human capabilities. Smart robotics are going to be a key driver of the next stage of the Information Revolution, and Marc and his team at Boston Dynamics are the clear technology leaders in advanced dynamic robots. I am thrilled to welcome them to the SoftBank family and look forward to supporting them as they continue to advance the field of robotics and explore applications that can help make life easier, safer and more fulfilling.”

Marc Raibert, CEO and founder of Boston Dynamics, said, “We at Boston Dynamics are excited to be part of SoftBank’s bold vision and its position creating the next technology revolution, and we share SoftBank’s belief that advances in technology should be for the benefit of humanity. We look forward to working with SoftBank in our mission to push the boundaries of what advanced robots can do and to create useful applications in a smarter and more connected world.”

As part of the transaction with Alphabet, SoftBank has also agreed to acquire Japanese bipedal robotics company Schaft. Founded in 2012 in the JSK Robotics Laboratory at the University of Tokyo, the company has continued its pioneering work under the leadership of co-founders Yuto Nakanishi, Junichi Urata, Narito Suzuki and Koichi Nishiwaki.

The transaction is subject to customary closing conditions and regulatory approvals.

SoftBank entered the robotics market with its $100+ million acquisition of French company Aldebaran Robotics in 2012. Aldebaran, makers of Nao and Romeo, was immediately tasked with creating Pepper, which (as far as we can tell) is a social robot that’s still trying to figure out exactly how to become commercially viable as much more than a novelty.

What we do know for sure is that SoftBank suddenly has an alarming amount of robotics talent and tech at its disposal—either it’s all going to get sucked up into a corporate void and never heard from again, or something truly amazing is going to come out of this new partnership

More recently, Softbank invested $20 million in Fetch Robotics, which makes mobile robots for warehouse fulfillment as well as a mobile manipulator that (they hope) will soon transition from research platform to a robot that can pick objects off of shelves.

While as far as we know neither Boston Dynamics nor Schaft have robots with much in the way of near-term commercial potential, what these companies have in common is that they’re developing capable physical platforms backed by reliable software with an eye towards performing useful tasks outside of structured environments. Yes, our imaginations are running wild, although our expectation is that we’ll be seeing things that are bipedal and dynamic (and, um, social?).

We’re also wondering to what extent SoftBank is going to leave these groups alone to do what they do best (making awesome robots just for the heck of it), or whether SoftBank expects tangible, near-term contributions towards some specific project. It’s also unclear how much collaboration (if any) there will be between Boston Dynamics, which is based in Waltham, Mass., and Schaft, based near Tokyo, or with the other robotics stuff that SoftBank has going on in Japan, France, and the United States.

What we do know for sure is that SoftBank suddenly has an alarming amount of talent and tech at its disposal—either it’s all going to get sucked up into a corporate void and never heard from again, or something truly amazing is going to come out of this new partnership. We’re hoping for the latter, and we’ll keep you updated as we learn more.

Updated 10:41 p.m. ET

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Robot with threads near a fallen branch

RoMan, the Army Research Laboratory's robotic manipulator, considers the best way to grasp and move a tree branch at the Adelphi Laboratory Center, in Maryland.

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This article is part of our special report on AI, “The Great AI Reckoning.

"I should probably not be standing this close," I think to myself, as the robot slowly approaches a large tree branch on the floor in front of me. It's not the size of the branch that makes me nervous—it's that the robot is operating autonomously, and that while I know what it's supposed to do, I'm not entirely sure what it will do. If everything works the way the roboticists at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory (ARL) in Adelphi, Md., expect, the robot will identify the branch, grasp it, and drag it out of the way. These folks know what they're doing, but I've spent enough time around robots that I take a small step backwards anyway.

The robot, named RoMan, for Robotic Manipulator, is about the size of a large lawn mower, with a tracked base that helps it handle most kinds of terrain. At the front, it has a squat torso equipped with cameras and depth sensors, as well as a pair of arms that were harvested from a prototype disaster-response robot originally developed at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory for a DARPA robotics competition. RoMan's job today is roadway clearing, a multistep task that ARL wants the robot to complete as autonomously as possible. Instead of instructing the robot to grasp specific objects in specific ways and move them to specific places, the operators tell RoMan to "go clear a path." It's then up to the robot to make all the decisions necessary to achieve that objective.

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