Robot dog gets trained to follow the leader

Humans are pretty smart. What if robots paid closer attention?

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A company spun off from the maker of Vespa scooters wants robots to follow the leader. To that end, it has equipped a famous robot dog, Boston Dynamics' Spot, with proof-of-concept technology to enable it to follow humans around. 

Piaggio Fast Forward (PFF), which cut its teeth on a robot designed to follow humans and carry 40 pounds of stuff, envisions the technology as a future keystone of collaborative industrial automation.

"Most robotics companies look at the world as a world of obstacles," said Greg Lynn, PFF's chief executive officer. "At PFF, we adopted the opposite approach and this philosophy has fueled our research of how humans and robots physically move through space. We design behaviors that understand people and help automate tasks so you don't have to build complicated hardware. Working with Trimble to boost the process of replacing remote-controlled robots traveling on predetermined paths in mapped environments enable yet another step in the ultimate goal of providing safe and intuitive operations of machines in industrial environments. Dynamic following technology is one step closer to kicking the doors open to further implementation—from power tools to farming equipment to even automated vehicles."

In the newly unveiled proof-of-concept, PFF and a company called Trimble, which works with positioning, modeling, connectivity, and data analytics, deployed a smart following module prototype onto a Boston Dynamics' Spot robot platform controlled by Trimble's advanced positioning technology. The idea is to eliminate the operate with the joystick while preserving the robot's functionality. The team sees follow-the-leader technology, which has been deployed elsewhere in the robotics sphere, including the military and in autonomous trucking, as a useful addition to teleoperation and autonomy as a controls methodology.

"The follow-me technology by PFF provides an intuitive user experience and opens the door to collaborative robots that can augment the human workforce," says Aviad Almagor, division vice president, Trimble's Emerging Technologies. "Like, a 21st century Sancho Panza, robots with PFFtag, may have the future ability to assist construction professionals in their daily workflow, carry heavy equipment, improve efficiency and enhance workers safety."

Trimble conducted testing using the Spot robot equipped with Trimble laser scanning or Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) sensors and PFFtag technology at one of its customer's sites in Colorado over the course of two months.  The collaboration could point the way to how robots work with humans in the near future.