Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Google Workshops: a place for Googlers to get their hands dirty

Google Workshops: a place for Googlers to get their hands dirty: "This is the latest post in our series profiling entrepreneurial Googlers working on products across the company and around the world. Here, mechanical engineer Dan Ratner gives you a peek at a collection of machine workshops on campus that were used to construct the prototypes for the Street View trike, snowmobile and trolley, among other personal and 20 percent time projects. -Ed.

Wood, metal, welding and electronics shops are probably not what come to mind when you think about Google but in fact, we often have to build physical products to help us collect and organize information that’s found outside of the web. We do this at the Google Workshops, a hands-on facility equipped with everything from an oscilloscope to a miter saw and even a plasma cutter. Day and night—and even on weekends—the workshops are alive with Googlers working on personal projects—such as home furniture or model airplanes—as well as work-related ones like green business prototypes or components of our self-driving cars.

Googlers using a MIG welder in one of the workshops

In 2007, I took a trip to Barcelona, where I became inspired to share with the world the magnificent architecture lining the narrow alleys through which even a Smart Car can’t squeeze. When I returned home and saw a pedicab pedaling along the pier in San Francisco, I decided how I was going to do it. That spark of an idea became the Street View trike, which collects outdoor imagery from parks and cultural sites, and was my first attempt at creating a mobile unit to traverse areas unreachable by car. Over a weekend, a couple of engineers and I hacked together a somewhat rudimentary trike design and quickly followed that up with a second and better prototype that enabled us to capture usable imagery during a test run at Emerald Park in Dublin, Calif. Our initial images proved that the concept was feasible, and after a bit more work on both hardware and software, we were invited to use our prototype trike around Legoland, our first participant in the Street View Partner Program. Our prototype and 20 percent project eventually evolved into a production-quality trike fleet and full-scale operation employing many Googlers around the world.

Me on the Street View trike, capturing imagery in Legoland

People have asked us to visit historical buildings, national landmarks and other places that even a trike can’t reach—and we’re always trying to find new ways to do so. However, designing a new vehicle requires more than just sticking a camera on top of an apparatus. We often spend hours in the workshops testing out entirely new components made out of wood, metal and—it must be said—quite a bit of duct tape in order to find new and better ways to capture remote imagery. We worked extensively in our own facilities on components of the Street View snowmobile and trolley—from wiring up electronics to milling metal.

Our first prototypes sometimes start out rough around the edges—the first trolley prototype was actually built from an off-the-shelf, narrow dolly designed for schlepping around beer kegs—but our polished production vehicles wouldn’t exist if we didn’t first make early stage “hack” prototypes in our workshops.

Innovation at Google comes in many forms—it can be an idea, a program or even a handmade prototype. For me, it’s in a workshop with a table saw, 3D printer, TIG welder, vertical mill and a variety of raw materials. As a robotics enthusiast and mechanical engineer, these are the kinds of challenges and opportunities that bring me back to work every day.

We're always looking for new and exciting sites to explore. If you'd like to include your property in Street View, please visit our submission form.

Posted by Daniel Ratner, Senior Mechanical Engineer, Google Geo Team


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