Ford pilots four-legged robots to help scan plant floors

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DETROIT — Ford Motor Co. is testing out a pair of four-legged robots at a transmission plant in suburban Detroit in hopes the technology can help it more quickly change over manufacturing facilities to build new products.

The automaker earlier this year leased two robots from Boston Dynamics named Fluffy and Spot. The dog-like creatures come equipped with five cameras that Ford plans to use at its Van Dyke Transmission Plant next month to virtually scan the entire facility.

Ford uses the scans when it updates its manufacturing sites with new vehicles, engines or other parts to determine what machinery is there and what items need to be updated or moved.

The automaker typically uses tripods with lasers that workers would manually walk around to different locations. Ford said the normal process takes roughly two weeks and costs $300,000 per facility. Officials say using the robots takes half the time and is a fraction of the cost, although they did not reveal specifics.

“Fluffy is an amazing manufacturing tool,” said Paula Wiebelhaus, the robot’s handler. “Yes, it’s interesting and new, but Fluffy should really be valued for his work and tenacity. He can do so much more than dance and roll over. We want to push him to the limits in the manufacturing plant and see what value he has for the company.”

The robots are controlled through a game-like device that allows the user to see from the robot’s perspective. They can be operated from up to 160 feet away with the out-of-the-box tablet application. They can move as fast as 3 mph on a battery lasting nearly two hours, Ford says.

They have three different gaits depending on what surfaces they’re maneuvering over and can crouch, stretch, scale 30-degree inclines and right themselves if they fall.

The robots have a circular base they can sit on, nicknamed Scouter, that can move around the plant and help them conserve battery.

Ford is no stranger to robots. The automaker has tested a two-legged robot, called Digit, to deliver packages, and has implemented collaborative robots, called “cobots,” to help factory workers around the globe.

It’s unclear where else Ford might deploy the robots following Van Dyke Transmission. The automaker is expected to change over its Dearborn Truck and Kansas City Assembly plants in the coming months to build the new F-150 pickup.

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