Ford fetches robot dogs to work in a factory

See Spot run. See Spot scan. A new deployment for this agile pup puts cutting edge autonomy back in auto factories.
Written by Greg Nichols, Contributing Writer

The king of awe-inspiring viral videos, Boston Dynamics is continuing its push to commercialize its agile robot creations with a new pilot program at Ford. The car-maker will be leasing two robotic dogs, known as Spot, for its Van Dyke Transmission Plant.

The dogs will be on something of a short leash, guided by handler Paula Wiebelhaus, who uses a controller and will personally monitor the bots in operation. Painted bright yellow, the quadruped robots will each carry five cameras and two hours worth of battery power and will walk the floor capturing plant data and dimensions that will eventually be used to retool the line. In the future, the robots could be used to perform this task autonomously.

"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."

Scanning physical spaces is a job well-suited to robots. Other robots -- even other dog-shaped robots -- are used for similar purposes. Aided by a partnership with Lenovo, UK-based React Robotics has a four-legged robotic helper called DogBot designed specifically for the construction sector, though with potential applications in other industries. Like spot, DogBot is a mobile sensor platform that can autonomously navigate spaces utilizing machine learning algorithms for locomotion, perception, and proprioception. 

According to Ford, the Spot deployments could save the company $300,000 per year, which is the cost of manually scanning the giant facility.

"We used to use a tripod, and we would walk around the facility stopping at different locations, each time standing around for five minutes waiting for the laser to scan," Goderis recalls. "Scanning one plant could take two weeks. With Fluffy's help, we are able to do it in half the time." 

In line with larger sector trends, Boston Dynamics designed Spot to be application agnostic, outfitting it with baseline capabilities to perform multiple duties. As a result, the company is celebrating early deployments in a number of use cases. In one deployment, a construction firm in Canada used a Spot robot to automate the capture of thousands of images weekly on a 500,000 square foot building site, creating an ongoing record of progress and enabling the builders to identify growing problems and inefficiencies early.

Amusingly, Ford's Spot will, at times, catch a lift atop another robot as it sits on its haunches like a robotic king. That small courier robot, known informally as Scouter, will ferry the dog robots up and down the aisles of the plant to conserve the dog's batteries. 

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