Boston Dynamics’ Atlas robot. (Courtesy of Boston Dynamics)
UPDATES: 12/19/13, 3:16 p.m. EST. Kramer Levin Naftalis & Frankel has become the latest Am Law 100 firm to enter the field of robotics, announcing its formation of a drones group. 12/23/13, 10:50 a.m. EST. Google’s Schaft robot has won the DARPA rescue challenge, according to the BBC, which thankfully notes that a rise of the machines is not imminent.
Military robotics manufacturer Boston Dynamics tapped Edwards Wildman Palmer for counsel this week on its sale to Google for an undisclosed sum in a deal that has the Internet, and even some late-night comedians, buzzing.
The purchase of Boston Dynamics, an engineering firm with 80 employees founded in 1992 by former Carnegie Mellon University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Marc Raibert, is Google’s eighth acquisition of a robotics company this year. The deal comes as Google seeks to increase its presence in the robotics space to keep pace with competitors like Amazon.com.
Boston Dynamics has developed a number of cutting-edge robots—with names like Atlas, BigDog, Cheetah and WildCat—that have attracted the interest of investors and the U.S. Department of Defense’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. In September the Waltham, Mass.–based company inked a $10 million contract with the Pentagon to expand a program to build a legged robot used for hauling military gear over rough terrain. CNNMoney reports that Boston Dynamics has won nearly $140 million in Defense Department contracts since 2000.
Albert Sokol, a veteran corporate and venture capital partner with Edwards Wildman Palmer in Boston, says his firm has been advising Boston Dynamics since its inception by Raibert more than two decades ago. The private company does not have any in-house lawyers.
“This is a tremendous success story for Marc and everyone else [at Boston Dynamics],” Sokol says. “It’s one of the more cutting-edge companies in the expanding field of robotics and mechanical and electrical engineering.”
Sokol declined to comment on how much Google ponied up for Boston Dynamics, noting that a deal value has not been publicly disclosed, but did say that both sides were happy with the transaction. Other Edwards Wildman lawyers working on the deal for Boston Dynamics include corporate partner Marc Mantell and associate Eric Carlson. (Sokol laughed when we asked whether Raibert and Boston Dynamics had ever offered to build the firm a robotic associate.)
Google’s chief legal officer, David Drummond, a former Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati partner who joined the Internet giant in 2002, and general counsel J. Kent Walker Jr. did not respond to requests for comment on whether the company retained outside counsel for its Boston Dynamics buy. Nor did Donald Harrison, a former deputy general counsel at Google who a year ago this month took over as head of the company’s M&A group. (Google’s in-house legal department was named the best in the business two years ago by sibling publication Corporate Counsel.)
Sokol declined to comment on Google’s legal advisers and a similar request for information was denied by a Google spokesman. Firms that have traditionally handled transactional work for Google include Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton, Fenwick & West and Wilson Sonsini. Representatives for each of the Am Law 100 firms say none of the trio had any role on the Boston Dynamics deal.
This summer, Cleary represented Google on its $1.1 billion buy of Israeli map software provider Waze, according to our previous reports. The firm has previously advised Google on the $2.35 billion sale of a set-top box unit last last year, its $12.5 billion buy of Motorola Mobility Holdings in 2011 and $750 million acquisition of mobile advertising business AdMob in 2010.
Other robotics companies bought by Google this year include Autofuss, Bot & Dolly, Holomni, Industrial Perception, Meka Robotics, Redwood Robotics and Schaft Inc. Earlier this month, Google unveiled plans for a robotics unit to be headed by Android creater Andrew Rubin.
U.S. Senate records show that Google continues to employee dozens of lobbying firms to advocate for its interests on IP, privacy and technology issues. Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough and Garrett McNatt Hennessey Carpenter 360 LLC are the two leaders among law firms lobbying for Google through the third quarter of this year, reaping $150,000 and $30,000, respectively, for their efforts, according to U.S. Senate filings. (Google made headlines this fall when a mysterious pair of offshore barges appeared off the coast of Portland, Maine, and San Francisco, which the company later revealed are sites where people will be able to explore new technologies.)
While Google has said publicly that it intends to honor Boston Dynamics’ current contractual commitments—Comedy Central talk show satirist Stephen Colbert joked on his show Monday night that some of the target company’s Cyberdyne Systems-esque contraptions were fueled by human nightmares—the Mountain View, Calif.–based multinational also claims that it does not intend to become a U.S. military contractor, meaning that its new acquisition will likely be tasked with creating commercial applications for its growing army of robots, according to technology news site The Verge.
That could mean the next drone war isn’t between warring robot armies, but law firms seeking to carve out market share in the relatively nascent field of robotics law. In November, Littler Mendelson claimed to be the first major firm to form a robotics practice group, and earlier this year Washington University School of Law professor Neil Richards released a research paper calling for the crafting of new laws to prepare for the robot and android generation.
“The know-how in this industry is incredibly concentrated,” says Edwards Wildman’s Sokol. “But the size of the market is going to continue to grow.”