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Ford buys bipedal bots to experiment with autonomous delivery

autonomous vehicles

An Oregon-based robotics company has announced that its biomimetic bipedal robot, Digit, is now on sale, and that Ford is its first customer.

Agility Robotics was formed as a spin-out from Oregon State University in 2015, aiming to harness the newest scientific and technical breakthroughs to improve robotic legged mobility.

In February 2019, Agility announced Digit: a bipedal robot capable of navigating human environments. Digit is approximately humanoid in size and shape, with a torso containing its computer, two arms for handling objects, two legs which step delicately (much like a humanoid Star Wars droid), but no head. It is a step forward from Agility’s previous robot product, Cassie, which resembles the lower half of a bipedal animal such as an ostrich.

Digit is equipped with lidar and a raft of other sensors for semi-autonomous navigation. It can pick up and carry objects up to 18kg, making it well-placed for tasks such as routine warehouse work and short-range deliveries. It is likely to be aimed at companies such as Amazon and JustEat, which are exploring how to make home deliveries as quick and efficient as possible.

Digit is now on sale, with deliveries beginning this quarter. Automaker Ford is its first customer to claim Digit, purchasing two units. Ford has said that it is experimenting with how the robot could be integrated with self-driving vehicles. For instance, it could travel in the back of a connected autonomous delivery van and then emerge to deliver a parcel when it approaches the destination. This could help resolve what Ford CTO Ken Washington described as the “last 50-feet problem” (the complication of delivering a parcel from van to doorstep).

A promotional video released in 2019 demonstrates the robot delivering a parcel while avoiding real-world obstacles, such as an abandoned scooter. According to Agility, it can connect to an autonomous vehicle to complete computationally expensive tasks, such as image recognition.

Just six units will be built in the first production run and will be sold for an unspecified price in the “low-mid six figures”.

Digit is just one of many assistive robots rolled out at CES 2020. Samsung attracted considerable attention by presenting a unique ball-shaped domestic surveillance robot called Ballie during its keynote presentation, while more specialised robots at the event include products like Charmin’s toilet-paper delivery robot, Rollbot.


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