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Alphabet’s Other Robotics Company

After two years of secrecy, what is the Alphabet-owned robotics company up to?

You’ve heard of Boston Dynamics, the Alphabet-owned company behind America’s coolest and weirdest robots. But have you heard of Schaft? As part of X, Alphabet’s moonshot division, it’s Alphabet’s other robotic company–and it’s far more secretive than Boston Dynamics.

But last Friday, Schaft made a rare appearance at the New Economic Summit in Japan, showing off a nameless bipedal robot with two piston-like legs, which effortlessly walks up and down stairs and navigates uneven terrain, such as slippery rocks on the beach, even when carrying up to 130 pounds.

We reached out to X about Schaft’s appearance at the conference, and the company was quick to downplay the demonstration. “This wasn’t a product announcement or indication of a specific product roadmap,” an X representative told us in a boilerplate response. “The team was simply delighted to have a chance to show their latest progress.”

So what else do we know about Schaft? How does it differ from Boston Dynamics’s work? And what’s Alphabet’s ultimate plan for the company?

The Willy Wonkas Of Robotics

Schaft was founded by Junichi Urata and Yuto Nakanishi, two roboticists who met each other at the University of Tokyo’s JSK Robotics Laboratory. After years of working together, Urata and Nakanishi developed powerful new actuators that solved one of the biggest problems facing robots today: Pound for pound, they’re fundamentally weaker than humans.

That seems counterintuitive, but it’s true. To get around easily, robots need to be both strong and lightweight. But with motors, there’s an engineering trade-off between weight and strength. In other words, as they get stronger, they get heavier, slower, and less wieldy. That’s why a robot such as Honda’s ASIMO can only lift a dozen pounds, where as an adult male might be able to lift 10 times that. The relative weakness and weight of robot actuators makes balance a problem, and also means they tend to overheat.

Urata and Nakanishi solved this problem by replacing standard servos with high-voltage, high-current, liquid-cooled motor drivers. They then spun the technology off from the JSK Robotics Laboratory as Schaft. That’s when they started building the robot that would win them the love of Alphabet: the S-One, a robot designed to pass the DARPA Robotics Challenge, or DRC.

The DRC was a prize competition held from 2012 to 2015 to perfect technology that might eventually lead to robot first responders (winners secured DARPA funding to continue development). It tasked roboticists to create a robot that could drive a utility vehicle, walk over rubble, use tools to break through concrete panels, climb ladders, and more.

Using an existing set of robotic legs built by Kawada Industries as a base, Schaft grafted a pair of powerful robot arms onto the S-One, then outfitted the bot with the company’s powerful actuators. The result was a design that soundly beat every other contender in the first round of the DRC.

Alphabet–then Google–pounced. That same month, before the S-One could move on to the DRC Finals, Schaft was acquired. With Silicon Valley’s billions suddenly behind them, the company pulled out of the competition, opting not to pursue DARPA funding. Schaft went into full secrecy mode, pulling its already austere website.

Up until Friday, that’s all anyone had heard of Schaft. In a very real way, the company is the Willy Wonka of the robotic industry, going underground at the height of its success.

AtlasBoston Dynamics

More Nest Than Stark Industries

Alphabet has been mum about what it sees in Schaft. A spokesperson at Alphabet told me: “As with all of the robotics teams that recently moved from Google to X, we’re looking at the great technology work they’ve done so far, defining some specific real-world problems in which robotics could help, and trying to frame moonshots to address them.”

Compared to Boston Dynamics, Alphabet’s better known robot company, a couple of differences stand out. First, a lot of Boston Dynamics’s best known robots, such as BigDog and Atlas, were designed with the military in mind, long before it was acquired by Alphabet. When Alphabet acquired Schaft, it pointedly withdrew from the DARPA Robotics Challenge finals–perhaps to avoid establishing financial ties between Alphabet and the U.S. military.

CheetahBoston Dynamics

Second, Boston Dynamics tends to specialize in designing robots that move like living creatures, such as humans, dogs, and horses. The robots Schaft showed at the New Economic Summit on Friday, though, don’t really move like anything in the natural world. They look almost like capital Ms, lifting piston-like legs up and down without bending them. Meanwhile, a battery pack and motor suspended between the legs give the robot a low center of gravity, helping it stay upright regardless of the terrain.

That could be important. According to recent reports that Alphabet has put Boston Dynamics for sale, the main reason for the move has to do with the fact that the company’s bots, as impressive as they are, are at least 10 years away from commercialization.

Though Schaft and Boston Dynamics were both purchased by Alphabet during a robotics acquisition spree in late 2013, Schaft does not appear to be for sale. Schaft may be closer to getting working robots to market than Boston Dynamics. Sure, it may seem intuitive that functional robots behave more like animals and humans, and maybe that’s true in the long run. But it may not be true now.

What’s more, Schaft’s robots seem more comfortable in the home than Boston Dynamics’s mule bots. It’s something that you can even spot in the leaked footage of Schaft’s latest advances. At one point, Schaft cofounder Yuto Nakanishi showed footage of a robot walking up stairs while vacuuming with its legs, pointing out at least one way Schaft could reach consumers: as a product halfway between a next-gen Roomba and Rosie the Robot Maid.

Is that what Schaft is up to? It’s hard to say, but Alphabet’s other robotics company could be laying the groundwork for the consumer robots of the 21st century. And if that’s the case, Schaft could well be Alphabet’s next Nest: the ultimate extension of home automation, a rocking, walking bot that does everything from vacuum your stairs to rake your yard.

All Images (unless otherwise noted): Schaft via Youtube

About the author

John Brownlee is a design writer who lives in Somerville, Massachusetts. You can email him at john.brownlee+fastco@gmail.com.