Home » Ford Experiments with Four-Legged Robots to Collect Data for Plant Retooling
DEARBORN, MI — In a unique pilot program, Ford Motor Co. is deploying four-legged robots into tough-to-reach areas within the company's Van Dyke Transmission Plant to collect data that can be used to retool plants, thereby saving Ford engineers time and money. Each robot weighs 70 pounds and performs 360-degree camera scans, handles 30-degree grades and climbs stairs for hours at a time.
Fluffy, the name given by the robot’s handler Paula Wiebelhaus, is one of the two models Ford is leasing from Boston Dynamics, which is known for creating sophisticated mobile robots. The other Ford robot is named Spot after the product’s actual name.
Bright yellow and equipped with five cameras, the robots can travel up to 3 mph on a battery lasting nearly two hours and 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 its plants.
“Over the years, [plant] changes are made that rarely get documented,” says 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.”
Without Fluffy, the update would be far more tedious.
“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 recalls. “Scanning one plant could take two weeks. With Fluffy’s help, we are able to do it in half the time.”
The old way also was expensive – it cost nearly $300,000 to scan one facility. If this pilot works, Ford’s manufacturing team could scan all its plants for a fraction of the cost. These technologies can help save the company money and retool facilities faster, ultimately helping bring new vehicles to market sooner.
The robots can be programmed to follow a specific path and can be operated from up to 50 meters away with the out-of-the-box tablet application. The key to Fluffy and Spot’s success is their agility, says Wiebelhaus, who controls her robot through a gaming-like device that allows her to remotely see the camera view. Should an issue occur, Wiebelhaus’ control device features a safe stop that stops it from colliding with anything.
The robots have three operational gaits – a walk for stable ground, an amble for uneven terrain and a special speed for stairs. They can change positions from a crouch to a stretch, which allows them to be deployed to difficult-to-reach areas within the plant. They can handle tough terrain, from grates to steps to 30-degree inclines. If they fall, they can right themselves. They maintain a safe, set distance from objects to prevent collisions.
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 3D point clouds to generate a CAD of the facility. If an area is too tight for Scouter, Fluffy comes to the rescue.