Innovation

Watch Boston Dynamics’ robodogs invade this Ford production plant

These robots act like the best-behaved dogs you've ever seen. Plus they have five cameras.

Boston Dynamics is heading to the Midwest. The perpetually viral robotics company, known across the world for videos of robots blowing people’s minds, has signed a deal with Ford Motor Company. Ford will be leasing two robots from the company in order to better scan their factories for retooling.

"Wow, it's, it's actually doglike."

What are these robots The robots, which are officially named Spot but have been nicknamed Fluffy by Ford, are four-legged walkers that can take 360-degree camera scans, handle 30-degree grades and climb stairs for extended periods of time. At 70 pounds with five cameras, they’re nimble, and Boston Dynamics wanted to make sure they had a dog-like quality as they save clients money.

As digital engineering manager at Ford’s Advanced Manufacturing Center, Mark Goderis was already quite familiar with the animal-like robots that have made Boston Dynamics famous.

But when he finally saw them in person, he tells Inverse, “I was like, wow, it's, it's actually doglike. I was really shocked at how an animal or dog like it really is. But then you start to think oh my god it is a robot. It was a moment of shock.”

One place that real dogs have the robots beat is speed: these bots can only go 3 MPH, a safety feature. But with handler Paula Wiebelhaus, who gave Fluffy its nickname in the first place, these robots will scan plant floors and give engineers a helping hand in updating Computer Aided Designs (CAD), which are used to help improve workplaces.

Paula Wiebelhaus taking Fluffy for a walk.Ford
Wiebelhaus can control Fluffy with a device that's only somewhat bigger than a Playstation 4 controller.Ford
Even engineering experts at Ford were surprised by how dog-like Fluffy can be.Ford

Why does Ford need them Although plants generally don’t change that much over the years, Goderis says, smaller changes take place over time and eventually become noticeable to those who work in them every day.

“It's like when you get up in the dark to do something in your house. You know how to walk through your house. But say you’ve moved something, a rocking chair. You kick it in the middle of the night because it's dark,” Goderis says.

The changes can be “as small as if you took a trash can and moved it from one location to another. But then we release a new trim level addition (used by car manufacturers to track the variety of special features on each car model), so you get a new part content on the line. And you literally just slide that into a workstation.

When you're adjusting in the facility, after production starts on a new vehicle, a lot of the time the process kind of smooths out. And as it smooths out, and you move things around, and the CAD images don't get updated as accurately as they should.”

Fluffy can climb stairs for hours.Ford

How will they save Ford money The problem is that old, manual methods of updating CAD images are pricey and time-consuming. Before the Boston Dynamics robots, one would need to “walk around with a tripod,” Goderis says.

“So think about a camera mounted on top of a tripod and you're posing for a family picture, but instead of having a camera we have a laser scanner on top of it. So we walk into a facility that's roughly 3 million square feet, and you would walk around with that tripod.”

That time-consuming process can work for family portraits, but it’s no good when it comes to car manufacturing. Even walking around at 3 MPH, Ford expects robotic Fluffy to cut down their camera times by half. That means faster designs, faster turnaround, and engineering teams getting plant designs faster. All of that means cars coming out faster.

And on top of that, the cameras will allow Fluffy’s video feed to be viewed remotely, meaning Ford engineers can, hypothetically, study plants thousands of miles away.

For now, Fluffy will start at a single plant, the Van Dyke Transmission Plant. But more dogs are likely in the company’s future.

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