Together, the companies say they will work toward making sure self-driving vehicles are able to accomplish something that’s proven surprisingly difficult to do – carry out the final step of getting a delivery from the car to the recipient’s front door. To that end, the companies are exploring the use of a two-legged robot designed and built by Agility Robotics, called “Digit.”
Digit was designed to not only approximate the look of a human, but to walk like one, too. Built out of lightweight material and capable of lifting packages that weigh up to 40 pounds, Digit can go up and down stairs, walk naturally through uneven terrain, and even react to things like being bumped without losing its balance and falling over.
“As humans, we take these abilities for granted, but they become extremely important when engineering a robot to navigate the nuances of various environments.” says Dr. Ken Washington, Vice President, Ford Research and Advanced Engineering, and Chief Technology Officer. “Gaining access to a customer’s door often requires walking through obstacles, including going up stairs and dealing with other challenges, which can be hard for robots with wheels to do since only about one percent of homes in the United States are wheelchair-accessible, according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development.”
Digit has been designed to walk upright without wasting energy, so it has no issue traversing the same types of environments most people do every day. In addition, its design also allows it to tightly fold itself up for easy storage in the back of a self-driving vehicle until it’s needed. Once a self-driving car 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.
“But Digit isn’t just capable of traversing obstacles – it has a hidden advantage,” says Washington. “While Digit needs to function on its own, the desire to keep it lightweight and capable of dynamic movement led to an innovative idea: Letting it tap the resources of another robot – one that’s equipped with advanced sensors and heavy computing hardware – for additional support and analytical skills when needed.”
The result is that Digit is able to communicate with and share data with the self-driving vehicle, such as a detailed map of the surrounding environment. When a self-driving vehicle brings Digit to its final destination, the vehicle can wirelessly deliver all the information Digit needs, including the best pathway to the front door. Through this data exchange, Digit can work collaboratively with a vehicle to situate itself and begin making its delivery.
The robot itself is outfitted with a LiDAR and a few stereo cameras – just enough sensory power to navigate through basic scenarios. If it encounters an unexpected obstacle, it can send an image back to the vehicle and have the vehicle configure a solution. The car 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. Digit’s light weight also helps ensure it has a long run time.
“Whether we are working side-by-side with robots in our numerous factories around the world or living with them as they help push packages to our door, our primary goal is to ensure they are safe, reliable and capable of working alongside people in intelligent ways,” says Washington. “Through our collaboration with Agility, we are striving to determine the best way for our self-driving vehicles to cooperate with Digit and understand how this new delivery method can be taken advantage of in the future.”
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