Ford is calling upon two robot dogs from Boston Dynamics in order to make better computer models of its factory floors. The four-legged robots, leased from the YouTube-famous robotics company, are remarkably nimble and can even climb stairs, making them more versatile than previous robots used to create 3D maps of Ford production facilities. Having accurate measurements of production facilities and manufacturing infrastructure can help streamline the process Ford uses to retool a factory for a new model.
Seen in another light, they’re horrifying prototypes for the robot army that will one day take down all of organic human life. (See Black Mirror.)
Boston Dynamics has been developing quadrupedal robots for more than 15 years, with early applications focused on providing the military with light cargo-carrying over rough terrain. Their Spot line of robots is its first commercially available model and can be configured to map, inspect, or carry cargo. They can also sit, shake hands, and trot in place. It’s either charming or mildly disturbing, depending on your perspective, as the four-legged machines have an uncanny sense of balance and move as no robot should.
This robot, named Fluffy, will be used to map Ford’s Van Dyke Transmission Plant and update CAD plans of the shop floor as the plant readies for a retooling. “We design and build the plant. After that, over the years, changes are made that rarely get documented,” says Mark Goderis, Ford’s digital engineering manager. “By having the robots scan our facility, we can see what it actually looks like now and build a new engineering model. That digital model is then used when we need to retool the plant for new products.”
Fluffy is piloted by Paula Wiebelhaus, who will help navigate as the robot canine covers nearly every inch of the plant in a week-long laser scanning mission. That’s half the time it would in the past. Ford says it should also cost a whole lot less than its previous method.
In the future, Ford hopes to operate the robots remotely, but for now, they require a handler. They’re currently programmed to maintain a safe distance from objects and their handlers can step in to help guide them or return them to a safe position. With a walking speed of 3 mph, Fluffy’s battery lasts about two hours, but when mapping more open spaces where agility isn’t an issue, Fluffy can conserve its battery and sit on Scouter, an Autonomous Mobile Robot that’s made to travel the aisles of the factory.
Ford didn’t give us any images of Fluffy riding Scouter, but we imagine it’s a lot like a cat riding a Roomba. Except Fluffy will actually listen when told to get off.