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Back in December, news got out about Google’s big push to enter the field of robotics: former Android boss Andy Rubin was promoted to head the robotics division, while the company scooped up bunches of robotics companies in the United States and Asia. But it seems that those acquisitions have created something of a conundrum in terms of unexpected government entanglement, and Google’s efforts to cut those ties.

Schaft's S-One robot opening a door at DARPA's Robotics Challenge.
Schaft’s S-One robot opening a door at DARPA’s Robotics Challenge.

According to a post on the Verge from this weekend, one of Google’s recently acquired subsidiaries, Japanese robotics start-up Schaft, wound up performing pretty well in a robotics competition sponsored by the government’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA. Schaft, it seems, was founded specifically to compete in DARPA’s Robotics Challenge, or DRC, which tasks robotics companies with creating automatons that can perform athletic human tasks like driving utility vehicles, climbing ladders, moving debris away from doors, and cutting through walls—all with the goal of developing “robots that could aid in response efforts after future natural and man-made disasters.”

Schaft’s entrant, the S-One, pictured at the top of this post clearing debris during the DRC trials, was the highest scorer in the competition. That would be great news for Google and DARPA—if either entity wanted to have anything to do with the other. As it turns out, Google doesn’t want to accept government funding, which would probably carry an obligation to create projects for government use. Likewise, DARPA doesn’t want to give Google half a million dollars when the company seems to have no trouble finding cash on its own. The result is that Schaft has moved to a self-funded track of the competition, freeing up DARPA’s prize money to go to independent companies. Moreover, the DRC can now open up the competition to even more finalists.

DRC program manager Gill Pratt explained the benefit of Schaft’s move out of the main competition:

“The decision by Team SCHAFT to self-fund allows DARPA to expand the competition and further develop disaster response robots. This expansion is similar to what happened after DARPA held the Virtual Robotics Challenge in June 2013, when some teams shifted resources and allowed us to increase participation. I look forward to seeing the results of efforts by our new finalists and new team.”

So how does this affect you, the average non-robotic human? For starters, it means that Google is more interested in bringing its robo-products directly to you on the consumer level. It means that the company will be able to follow its own protocols and methods when developing new robotic innovations, and won’t need to rely on the relatively glacial pace that usually comes with government sponsorship.

It also has the happy side-effect of promoting more robotics companies to benefit from the government’s largesse, which, in the end, can only be a boon to the field in general. On the flip side, Schaft, as the highest-scoring entrant in the competition, clearly would have won. That Google has taken the S-One out of the running means that an entrant that isn’t the best will win the funding. Is this a win for free-market capitalism? Or is it a loss for the advancement of the best in robotics?

[Sources: The Verge and DARPA]

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