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Ford’s Self-Driving Vans to Use Two-Legged Robots for Deliveries

Agility Robotics’ Digit will bring packages from the Ford Transit Van right to the front door.

The challenge for autonomous delivery vehicles, according to Dr. Ken Washington, Ford Motor Company CTO and Vice President, Research and Advanced Engineering, is that there’s no driver to carry packages the last 50 feet to the delivery destination door. To address this issue, Ford teamed up with Agility Robotics to use the startup company’s two-legged, box-carrying robot called Digit.

The robot is made from lightweight materials that allow it to run longer per charge, something critical for a long day spent in a delivery vehicle. Digit is designed to fold up and fit into the back of the self-driving Ford Transit van and unfold itself to get to work when needed. Since Digit is bipedal, it can navigate the same terrain that people do handling obstacles and uneven terrain. It’s also able to recover from being bumped without losing its balance. Digit can lift up to 40 pounds and is outfitted with a LiDAR unit and stereo cameras.

These sensors allow Digit to perform basic navigation and mobility tasks. Since Digit works with an autonomous vehicle, the sensor suite carried by that vehicle is available to Digit if needed, such as when it encounters an unexpected obstacle. Digit can send an image back to the vehicle and have the self-driving van configure a solution. The van could even send that information to the cloud and request help from other systems to better enable Digit to navigate.

Digit will ride in the back of Ford’s self-driving Transit delivery vans, then walk at every stop to make a delivery. The robot relies on the vehicle to recharge its battery as well as for additional sensing and computing resources.

Writing a blog in the publication Medium, Ford’s Washington notes that a self-driving vehicle is capable of creating a detailed map of the surrounding environment, so why not share that data with Digit instead of having the robot recreate the same type of information? After all, he points out, both Digit and the self-driving car need to know where they are in the world, where they need to go, and how to get there.

When a self-driving vehicle brings Digit to its final destination, the vehicle can wirelessly deliver all of the information it needs, including the best pathway to the front door. Through this data exchange, Digit can work collaboratively with the vehicle to situate itself and begin making its delivery.

Through Ford’s collaboration with Agility, Washington writes, the company is striving to determine the best way for its self-driving vehicles to cooperate with Digit and understand how this new delivery method can be taken advantage of in the future.

Ford is testing autonomous vehicles in Detroit, Miami, Pittsburgh, and Washington, DC. Agility expects to produce about six final versions of Digit at a rate of about two per month. Long term, the company plans to make between 50 and 100 by 2021.

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