Ford recruits Spot robotic dogs to laser scan its plants for retooling
Boston Dynamics’ Spot robots are eye-catching machines with some very useful capabilities – beyond just towing trucks and twerking. The versatility of these four-legged robotic dogs has seen them find use on farms in New Zealand and oil rigs in Norway, and now Ford is getting in on the act by enlisting a pair of the quadrupeds to perform laser scanning at one of its plants to aid in retooling.
Boston Dynamics put its Spot robots up for sale last month, and although they are designed to work right out of the box, users can tap into a software development kit (SDK) and tailor their machines to specific applications.
Ford is leasing, rather than buying its Spot robots, but nonetheless has specific tasks in mind for its new pair of machines, called Fluffy and Spot. Fitted out with five cameras and a battery providing almost two hours of operating time, the robots will trot around the company’s Van Dyke Transmission Plant in Michigan at up to 3 mph (4.8 km/h) and perform scans of the facility’s interior.
They will also be transported on the back of a small autonomous robot called Scouter that glides up and down aisles, as a way of conserving energy. The idea is to have Fluffy and Spot automate the process of laser scanning the plant floor, which is then fed into CAD software as engineers prepare to upgrade and retool the plants. This is currently a laborious and expensive exercise that costs almost US$300,000 per plant, but the robots could significantly reduce that figure.
“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,” says Mark Goderis, Ford’s digital engineering manager. “Scanning one plant could take two weeks. With Fluffy’s help, we are able to do it in half the time.”
As it stands, the robots can be programmed to follow specific paths, including moving through tight and dangerous spaces, walking up stairs and over uneven terrain, or handling 30-degree inclines. Currently they can be operated from 50 meters (164 ft) away, but eventually the idea is that they will be operated remotely, with the ability to be programmed for plant missions from anywhere in the US.
“We design and build the plant,” says Goderis. “After that, over the years, changes are made that rarely get documented. 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.”
You can check out the promo video from Ford below.