As work on self-driving cars continues, Ford is making use of a new self-driving factory robot that can deliver parts quickly and efficiently, modify its routes based on obstacles in its path, and free up about 40 hours of time per day for employees to get on with other tasks.
This particular self-driving robot – the first of its kind to be used at a Ford facility in Europe – is nicknamed "Survival" because of the way it can adapt to its environment. If it finds something blocking its path on one journey, it'll change its route the next time it travels along that path.
The Survival robot has been entirely designed and built by Ford engineers, and one of its smartest tricks is being able to operate without any special set up in the factory itself: the droid simply learns as it goes.
"We programmed it to learn the whole of the plant floor so, together with sensors, it doesn't need any external guides to navigate," says Ford engineering manager Eduardo García Magraner.
"When it first started you could see employees thinking they were in some kind of sci-fi movie, stopping and staring as it went by. Now they just get on with their jobs knowing the robot is smart enough to work around them."
The robot is currently undergoing a trial run at the Ford body and stamping plant in Valencia in Spain, where Kuga, Mondeo and S-Max cars are produced. It's tasked with delivering spare parts and welding material to different areas of the plant – a rather tedious task for a human, but no sweat for a robot.
Like Ford's prototype self-driving road vehicles, the robot makes use of LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) technology to detect what's around it via laser pulses.
Thanks to an automated shelf featuring 17 different slots, the Survival bot can deliver particular parts to particular operators, with each employee only having access to a certain section of the robot's catalog of items.
And Ford says Survival isn't intended to replace staff, just make their days a little more interesting. The self-driving robot gives time back to employees, time they can use for more complex tasks around the factory.
"It's been on trial for almost a year now and has performed faultlessly to-date," says Garcia Magraner. "It's become quite a valuable team member. Hopefully we can put it into full-time use shortly and expand into other Ford facilities."
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