Ford testing Boston Dynamics robodogs at Michigan plant

Chris Teague

Chris Teague

Robot shaped like dogs are being used by Ford to replace humans for certain tasks.

Fluffy and Spot are bringing their four-legged athleticism and efficiency to Ford’s Van Dyke Transmission Plant in a move that could end up saving money and speed up the turnaround time between the production of various models.

In addition to sitting, shaking hands, and rolling over, the 70-pound dog-shaped robots, whom their handler Paula Wiebelhaus named, are able to perform 360-degree camera scans, handling 30-degree grades, and climb for hours at a time. As workers, they are unmatched by humans at these tasks.

Ford

Their agility allows them to climb steep stairs.Photo courtesy of Ford Motor Company

Ford is leasing the bright yellow robots as part of a program aimed at reducing cost and increasing efficiency at the company’s plants.

The duo are each equipped with five cameras and can travel up to 3 mph. Their battery life is nearly two hours.

Ford has established a roster of activities for them to accomplish. The robots will be used to scan the plant floor and assist engineers in updating the original Computer Aided Design, which is utilized when Ford is getting ready to retool their plants.

“We design and build the plant. After that, over the years, changes are made that rarely get documented,” said 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.”

Ford

The robots are designed to avoid collisions with other objects, including people.Photo courtesy of Ford Motor Company

Typically, this process is arduous, time consuming, and expensive. It costs nearly $300,000 to scan one facility. Should Fluffy and Spot prove competent, the scanning process could be done for a fraction of the cost.

“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 said. “Scanning one plant could take two weeks. With Fluffy’s help, we are able to do it in half the time.”

Ford

Unlike real dogs, the models require no pets, but they do need plenty of time to recharge their batteries after a long day at work.Photo courtesy of Ford Motor Company

Currently, the robots can be programmed to follow a specific path and are able to be operated from up to 50 meters away with a tablet application. Eventually, Ford expects that the company will be able to operate the robots remotely, programming them for plant missions and receiving reports from anywhere in the country.

For now, Wiebelhaus will control the robots and is able to see the footage that their cameras are picking up. Should it be necessary to immediately shut down the robots, Wiebelhaus is able to do so so via the app.

Meet Fluffy the Robot Dog | Innovation | Ford

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Just as dogs can walk on stable ground, uneven terrain, and stairs, so can the robots. The machines can also change from a crouch to a stretch. If they fall, they are designed to right themselves. The robots are also programmed to maintain safe distancing from objects and people to avoid collisions and interference.

Fluffy isn’t just relying on its legs to roam around. According to Ford, “At times, Fluffy sits on its robotic haunches and rides on the back of a small, round Autonomous Mobile Robot, known informally as Scouter. Scouter glides smoothly up and down the aisles of the plant, allowing Fluffy to conserve battery power until it’s time to get to work. Scouter can autonomously navigate facilities while scanning and capturing 3-D point clouds to generate a CAD of the facility. If an area is too tight for Scouter, Fluffy comes to the rescue.”

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