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UPDATED: Willow Garage to Shut Down? Company Says 'No, Just Changing'

Is one of the most well-known robotics research companies in the world, Willow Garage, to be dissolved?

3 min read
UPDATED: Willow Garage to Shut Down? Company Says 'No, Just Changing'

UPDATE 11/12/13 3:03 p.m. EST: Our latest stories on Willow Garage's dismantling, including an exclusive interview with founder Scott Hassan:

Majority of Willow Garage Employees Move to Suitable Technologies, PR2 Still Supported

Interview: Scott Hassan on Willow Garage and the Future of Suitable Technologies

And for more on Willow Garage's spin-offs, read:

UBR-1 Robot From Unbounded Robotics Revolutionizes Affordable Mobile Manipulation

Startup Spotlight: Industrial Perception Building 3D Vision Guided Robots

Redwood Robotics Brings Big Names to Next Gen Robot Arms

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UPDATE 02/11/13 11:37 p.m. EST: 

Willow has just released a response, which we're posting below in full:

Willow Garage has decided to enter the world of commercial opportunities with an eye to becoming a self-sustaining company. This is an important change to our funding model.

The success of the PR2 personal robot and of ROS will continue. There are close to 50 PR2 robots in the world and Willow Garage support of the platform will not diminish. And of course, ROS, as an open source platform, will continue independent of our business model choices. In addition to Willow Garage, its supporters include the Open Source Robotics Foundation and all the other contributors in the ROS community (academic, industrial and individual) who have made it the platform of choice for Robotics.

While Willow declined to comment on our original story before we posted it, as far as we can tell Willow's response doesn't directly contradict any of the information that multiple sources (including current Willow employees and past Willow employees) have told us. Our concern is that if the change of funding model is as simple and as innocuous as Willow's post makes it sound, we would not have received multiple, consistent tips over the weekend that something very serious had happened. Our original headline, stating that the company was to shut down, reflected the information that these sources gave to us. We now have decided to update it in response to Willow's official statement. We hope to receive further clarification from the company.

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IEEE Spectrum has learned that Willow Garage, the Silicon Valley robotics powerhouse that brought the world the PR2, ROS, TurtleBot, and several robotics spinoffs, will likely be dissolving within the next few months.

While we have no official confirmation or comment from Willow Garage itself, multiple sources inside the company have informed us that the decision to dissolve was announced to employees last Friday. Without any information coming from Willow (the company did not respond to our requests for comment), we're hesitant to make too many assumptions about what exactly is going on or why, but we are reasonably certain (certain enough to be posting this) that this is not some sort of temporary situation that has a chance of being resolved: Willow employees will be moving on, and the company (or at least, the company as we know it) will cease to exist within just a few months.

The biggest question we have is of course why this is happening, although it's worth noting that much of the practical (i.e. income generating) work being done with the products that Willow Garage has created is being performed not by Willow itself, but by Willow spin-offs, including the Open Source Robotics Foundation, Industrial Perception, hiDOF, and most recently, Suitable Technologies. With that in mind, we've got a lot of questions that we'll be asking these companies over the next days and weeks to try and figure out how their future is going to change, or if it's going to change, in a post-Willow robotics industry.

We've been fans of Willow Garage for a long, long time. Through the PR2, Willow helped break the hardware cycle that kept researchers building robots and not teaching them to do anything. Through ROS and its commitment to open source, Willow helped foster a culture of collaboration and made sure that good ideas and hard work benefited everyone. And through TurtleBot, Willow made advanced robotics accessible to dedicated researchers and hobbyists who might not have been able to afford a PR2. Willow has played a hugely significant role in robotics over the last five years, but whether we like it or not, and whether we're prepared for it or not, it appears as though we're going to have to tackle the future without them.

With this news public, we're expecting some sort of announcement from Willow Garage, and we'll be following up with everyone we can to try and figure out exactly what's going on.


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The Bionic-Hand Arms Race

The prosthetics industry is too focused on high-tech limbs that are complicated, costly, and often impractical

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A photograph of a young woman with brown eyes and neck length hair dyed rose gold sits at a white table. In one hand she holds a carbon fiber robotic arm and hand. Her other arm ends near her elbow. Her short sleeve shirt has a pattern on it of illustrated hands.

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In Jules Verne’s 1865 novel From the Earth to the Moon, members of the fictitious Baltimore Gun Club, all disabled Civil War veterans, restlessly search for a new enemy to conquer. They had spent the war innovating new, deadlier weaponry. By the war’s end, with “not quite one arm between four persons, and exactly two legs between six,” these self-taught amputee-weaponsmiths decide to repurpose their skills toward a new projectile: a rocket ship.

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