Pepper and Nao are among the best-known humanoid robots, and their maker is changing hands, demonstrating the challenges facing service robot vendors. United Robotics Group today announced that it has agreed to acquire SoftBank Robotics Europe SAS from SoftBank Robotics Group Corp. The transaction will result in United Robotics Group becoming one of the leading service robot providers in Europe, said the companies.
As part of United Robotics Group (URG), the former SoftBank Robotics Europe (SBRE) will revert to the name “Aldebaran,” which developed robots for academic and customer-service use. URG offers robots including Pepper and Nao, Boston Dynamics' Spot, and the current Rethink Robotics' Sawyer through a robotics-as-a-service (RaaS) model.
“We are pleased to welcome SBRE with more than 180 exceptionally motivated robotics specialists,” stated Thomas Hähn, founder and CEO of United Robotics Group. “This is an important step for us on the way to further internationalizing our company. The future Aldebaran with their strong reputation in the market will help us to further expand our great potential in combining interaction robotics with our knowledge in collaborative industrial robotics.”
SoftBank shifts robotics focus
Founded in 2005, Aldebaran Robotics SAS developed the Nao and Pepper humanoid robots. SoftBank acquired the Paris-based company in 2015, and it became part of SoftBank Robotics Europe. The unit of SoftBank Robotics Group, itself a subsidiary of Tokyo-based SoftBank Group Corp., has about 180 employees. SoftBank Group has been a major investor in robotics startups worldwide.
SoftBank's systems are used in more than 70 countries and in industries such as retail, healthcare, hospitality, education, and warehousing and logistics. Boston-based SoftBank Robotics America Inc. is a sibling organization that markets the Whiz cleaning robot.
After producing 27,000 Pepper robots between 2014 and 2020, SoftBank “paused” production of that “emotionally perceptive” model and reduced its staff from 330 people in 2020. Similarly, SoftBank last year sold mobile robot maker Boston Dynamics, which it had acquired from Google (now part of Alphabet) in 2017, to Hyundai Motor Group.
Xavier Lacherade, general manager of SBRE, will continue to lead the company, renamed Aldebaran under URG.
“We know URG as a strategic partner in sales, services, and software development,” said Lacherade. “I am firmly convinced that the short management paths, which are also characterized by the German-French friendship, will inspire the work on both sides of the Rhine and lead us to new successes in the near future.”
SBRE will aquire a minority stake in URG, and the two companies said they will continue to cooperate in the global marketing of various robots. The transaction (for an undisclosed amount of money) is subject to merger clearance, and the parties expect it to close in the second quarter of 2022.
United Robotics Group develops partnerships
Bochum, Germany-based United Robotics Group has been the main distributor of SBRE's robots in Europe since October 2021, responsible for sales, service, and maintenance of Pepper and Nao. The company is a subsidiary of RSBG SE, the investment arm of Essen, Germany-based RAG-Stiftung.
URG said the purchase of SBRE follows its strategy of becoming a leader in the service robotics market through organic growth and acquisitions. Group companies such as Humanizing Technologies and ENTRANCE Robotics have already been partners of SBRE since 2017.
HAHN Group, which revived the Rethink Robotics brand after that Boston-based collaborative robot pioneer shut down in 2018, is a backer of URG. The Pepper purchase is another example of service robots moving to German ownership and engineering.
In addition, URG said it combines hardware and software expertise and provides RaaS. It develops custom applications with partners and customers in the healthcare, hospitality, and education sectors.
It said the knowledge and experience of SBRE's employees will not only complement URG's product range, but will also accelerate research and development. URG, SBRG, and SBRE said they plan to continue developing and distributing robots and jointly providing services to customers.
“We are strengthening our strategic partnerships with various robotics leader companies around the world,” said Fumihide Tomizawa, president and CEO of SoftBank Robotics Group. “We are very pleased to form a strong partnership with a successful company, URG. We will leverage this great relationship to develop and market Pepper and a variety of other robots.”
About the Author
Eugene Demaitre is editorial director of Robotics 24/7. Prior to joining Peerless Media, he was a senior editor at Robotics Business Review and The Robot Report. Demaitre has also worked for BNA (now part of Bloomberg), Computerworld, and TechTarget. He has participated in numerous robotics-related webinars, podcasts, and events worldwide.
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