How a Google robot reimagines walking

Alphabet's mysterious Shaft Inc. has unveiled a new kind of robot. It's less cute and less intimidating than previous Googlebots, and walks in a unique way.

Cynical eyes could view three years without media attention as a sign of a stalling company, but Alphabet-owned SCHAFT appears to have been enjoying the privacy.

The robotics company was purchased by Alphabet (then Google) in 2013 and rolled into X, Google’s experimental lab. It gained attention in 2014 for winning a DARPA robotics contest, but almost no news from the company has been heard since.

On Thursday, the company re-entered the spotlight as it debuted a new robot at the New Economic Summit (NEST) 2016. The as-yet-unnamed robot stood about three feet tall and was almost all leg – useful leg, it turned out. 

At the debut, the robot "walked" across the stage. Rather than trying to mimic the lanky gait of a human – with hips, knees, and ankles – the new bot accomplished a more clunky waddle. The robot’s legs are almost entirely straight and pivot from the top for small steps. An “ankle” near the bottom of the leg adjusts to ensure the robot lands with a flat foot.

And it works – really well.

In a launch video that accompanied the debut (and is posted above), the robot was shown navigating many of rigorous terrains that have tripped up previous generations of walking robots. The robot handled snow, a rocky beach, and stayed upright as a metal rod was rolled on the ground to trip it.

The aim for the robot was a “low-cost, low-power, compact device to ‘help society,’” according to IEEE Spectrum. Details on the Googlebot's helpfulness have not yet been released, but it is small enough to maneuver in a house, can walk up stairs, and can carry up to 132 pounds.

The small size, clunky maneuvers, and generally unintimidating debut was in sharp contrast to some other Alphabet-owned company reveals.

Boston Dynamics has unveiled a range of robots from the popular Atlas to the hydraulic BigDog. But the design of the robots are more raw and based on biological forms – BigDog does look like a big robotic dog.

The difference between the new unnamed SCHAFT bot and the older Boston Dynamics robots could be down to different companies and different purposes, but it could also be a sign of where Alphabet is heading with its robotics program.

Rumors abounded in mid-March that Google was putting Boston Dynamics up for sale over concerns the intimidating image was generating bad press for the project.

“There’s excitement from the tech press, but we’re also starting to see some negative threads about it being terrifying, ready to take humans’ jobs,” said a Google spokesperson in an email recovered by Bloomberg.

There is much speculation, but little is known for sure about Alphabet's intentions for its new waddling SCHAFT bot. The company was clear that the reveal was not a product launch.

This “wasn’t a product announcement or indication of a specific product roadmap," a SCHAFT spokesperson told IEEE Spectrum. "The team was simply delighted to have a chance to show their latest progress.”

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