A Ford plant in Michigan has gone to the dogs.
In this case, the four-legged beasts are robotic, and they promise to usher in a new era of computer-aided design and economic efficiencies for the auto manufacturer.
The two pooches – Fluffy and Spot – were manufactured by Boston Dynamics, which specializes in sophisticated robotic construction.
Their tasks will be to traverse the Van Dyke Transmission Plant in Sterling Heights, Michigan, and scan the layout to help engineers create more efficient layouts for periodic upgrading and retooling projects.
Each dog is equipped with five cameras capable of 360-degree scans. They can trot at speeds up to 3 mph and navigate stairs up to a 30-degree angle. Battery time is somewhat limited at just under two hours.
But a more robust companion robot, Scouter, serves as a chauffeur for the digital pooches for lengthier jaunts throughout the plant. Scouter, which is larger and bulkier and cannot access many areas Fluffy and Spot can, allows the two to conserve battery power.
Based on early runs, the two new pets may well earn the greeting, “Good dogs!” Mark Goderis, digital engineering manager at Ford, explains how the dogs improved on what used to be a long and expensive scanning task:
“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 said. “Scanning one plant could take two weeks. With Fluffy’s help, we are able to do it in half the time.”
Goderis said the manufacturing plant undergoes a number of changes and modifications over the years, many of which go undocumented.
“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.”
Scanning projects generally run around $300,000. Fluffy and Spot (Spot is the official name for the line of robots) are expected to help slash that figure significantly.
The robots can be operated from distances up to 164 feet away. Eventually, remote applications will be developed that will permit control from anywhere around the globe.
The computerized canines are indeed a rare breed; they cost $75,000 apiece. Ford currently is leasing the pair.
Boston Dynamics has dispatched Spot’s cousins to other spots around the world.
The Norwegian oil exploration and development company Aker BP ASA plans on utilizing Spot’s stereo scanning capacity, obstacle avoidance systems and onboard sensors to track down gas leaks and transmit weather conditions from the sea.
These operations can be conducted in locations unreachable by workers and for tasks too risky for humans.
On a farm in New Zealand, the robots are being used to monitor the growth of crops as well as to herd sheep.
At Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, a robotic dog has been retrofitted with iPads to allow doctors to remotely examine and communicate with COVID-19 patients.
“Originally, we were just talking to them without there having to be a health worker there. Now we’re making vital measurements like respiration rate, body temperature,” Boston Dynamics founder Marc Raibert said in a CNBC interview. “We’re working on oxygenation and heart rate, all that can be done without contact, even with a robot.”
And in Singapore, robots are being used to monitor social distancing practices in public parks. This relieves human personnel from risky exposure to infected individuals and to ornery citizens who flout local regulations. The dogs can broadcast messages and warnings to individuals reminding them to take proper precautions.
Unlike their live counterparts trained in crowd control by police, the digital dogs are not programmed to tackle or bite scofflaws.
Not yet, anyway.
Fluffy’s top speed is at three miles per hour for about 1.5 hours on battery power and is controlled by a handheld device. It has advanced navigating skills with its 360° obstacle avoidance having five-camera ‘eyes.’
The robot also has two payload ports in its front and middle portions of the body, which can carry up to 30 pounds. Moreover, if it crashes or falls, it has a dynamic response that allows it to stand back up on its own.
(Photo : Boston Dynamics @bostondynamicsofficial on Instragram)
Aside from factory work, Spot can be used to inspect construction sites with the complimentary Building Information Modeling (BIM) attached to it.
Spot can function in working environments as cold as -4 degrees Fahrenheit as well as ‘remotely perform inspections in electrified or radiation dense areas.’
Fluffy, the name given by the robot’s handler Paula Wiebelhaus, is one of the two models Ford is leasing from Boston Dynamics, known for creating sophisticated mobile robots. (The other Ford robot is named Spot after the product’s actual name.)
The robots, which Ford is piloting at its Van Dyke Transmission Plant, are bright yellow and easily recognizable. 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 we’re getting ready to retool our plants.
“We design and build the plant. After that, over the years, 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 cutting-edge technologies help save the company money and retool facilities faster, ultimately helping bring new vehicles to market sooner.
In time, Goderis says, the intent is to be able to operate the robots remotely, programming them for plant missions and receiving reports immediately from anywhere in the country. For now, 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 3-D point clouds to generate a CAD of the facility. If an area is too tight for Scouter, Fluffy comes to the rescue.
“There are areas in the plant that you might not want to walk into because they might be tough to maneuver,” says Wiebelhaus. “It’s easier and safer to send Fluffy back there.”
Although Fluffy is perfectly capable of rolling over, Wiebelhaus doesn’t see dog shows in his future.
“Fluffy is an amazing manufacturing tool,” said Weibelhaus. “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.”
More information: media.ford.com/content/fordmed … r-legged-robots.html