Car factories are very complex structures with different operations taking place in different buildings. They are also huge and evolve rapidly over time. This may cause a bit of a problem, if a factory changes too much and old plans do not match the real layout. That is why Ford is now employing four-legged robots from Boston Dynamics to map the layout of its Van Dyke Transmission Plant.
Two Boston Dynamics Spot robots, famous for their dexterity and unbelievable terrain-crossing abilities, are now walking around one of the most important factories that Ford owns. They are bright yellow, easily recognizable, have five cameras and can work without charging for up to two hours. They have no problem with stairs or other obstacles. They don’t run into doors or people, even if they happen to cross their path. Spots can be used for a variety of applications, but Ford is now using them to scan its factory.
Although factories are built to plans, they change dramatically over time. This means that existing plans do not match the current layout anymore, which makes it more difficult to retool the factory for new tasks. Ford used tripod-mounted scanners for this job, but this kind of work was hugely expensive and slow – it cost 300 thousand dollars and took around two weeks. Boston Dynamics robot that Ford named Fluffy is able to do that much quicker and for a fraction of the cost. Ultimately this will help bringing new vehicles to the market much faster.
These robots can follow a predetermined path or can be remote-controlled from a distance of up to 50 meters. Sometimes Fluffy just sits on an autonomous robot Scouter, which can navigate the facility by itself. When the area becomes too tight, Fluffy jumps off and continues job by itself. If it falls, it can right itself and stand back up. It can navigate stairs and inclines.
Obviously, Fluffy looks and moves like a dog. It can even do some tricks, such as dancing and rolling over. But its handler Paula Wiebelhaus, who named the robot Fluffy, doesn’t think it should be considered a toy. “Fluffy is an amazing manufacturing tool”, she said – “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”.
Boston Dynamics Spot made rounds in the media. People were happy to see its tricks and abilities. But it is not made for entertainment. It is designed to work and companies are going to buy these robots just for that. On the other hand, it could help teaching students programming so that robotics would be even more interesting and involving.