Ford studying walking, human-like robots

Ford studying walking, human-like robots

Agility Robotics systems could become common on warehouses, assembly spaces.

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Albany, Oregon – Agility Robotics is shipping its first two Digit robots to Ford for research and testing. Digit has arms and legs to work with humans and in human spaces. Ford and Agility plan to cooperate on developing applications for the humanoid machines.

Key applications for further exploration are indoor or first-mile logistics and last-50-feet delivery. The research also will focus on how Ford’s commercial vehicles and Digit talk to each other and their surroundings through advanced connectivity technologies. For example, Ford’s connected vehicles can continually update cloud-based maps that can be shared with Digit so it doesn’t have to recreate the same type of information.

The team expects that, as Digit will be part of a package delivery service, this communication channel will also provide delivery specific information such as where a customer prefers packages to be left, or other individual package delivery needs. This communication channel also allows Digit to ask for help if something unexpected is encountered.

“As online retailing continues growing, we believe robots will help our commercial customers build stronger businesses by making deliveries more efficient and affordable for all of us,” said Ken Washington, vice president, Ford Research and Advanced Engineering, and chief technology officer. “We learned a lot this year working with Agility, now we can accelerate our exploratory work with commercial Digit robots,”

Since the first Digit prototype was shown in early 2019, Agility Robotics has tested it extensively, refined the design, and added features to be ready for production and sale to customers.

Upgrades and improvements include more advanced feet that allow Digit to balance on one foot or carefully navigate obstacles, new sensors to perceive and map the world for robot navigation, and customer-ready, powerful onboard computer hardware.

“We’re excited about the technical capabilities and advanced legged mobility of Digit”, said Dr. Jonathan Hurst, CTO of Agility. “Videos can show a solid proof of concept - but this robot is ready to go out in the world in the hands of customers and start to really explore pragmatic use cases.”

Agility CEO Dr. Damion Shelton said, “For the first time, a full humanoid robot - with both mobility and manipulation capabilities - will be available for customer applications in a wide variety of industries, both indoor and outdoor.”

Digit’s design allows it to tightly fold itself up for easy storage in the back of a vehicle until it’s called into action. Once a vehicle arrives at its destination, Digit can be deployed to grab a package from the vehicle and carry out the final step in the delivery process. If it encounters an unexpected obstacle, it can send an image back to the vehicle to leverage additional computing power.

The vehicle could even send that information into the cloud and request help from other systems to enable Digit to navigate, providing multiple levels of assistance that help keep the robot light and nimble.