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Ford and Agility Robotics develop robot to automate last mile deliveries

To help address the issue of overburdened postal services, Ford is teaming up with Agility Robotics to explore a brand-new frontier in the world of autonomy — and a new way of thinking about how deliveries are made. Together, the companies will work toward making sure self-driving vehicles are uniquely outfitted to accomplish something that’s proven surprisingly difficult to do: carry out that final step of getting the delivery from the car to the door.

Since self-driving vehicles can potentially move people and goods simultaneously, they hold great potential to make deliveries even more convenient and efficient. A ride-hailing trip could double as a delivery service, dropping off packages in between transporting passengers. It’s not always convenient for people to leave their homes to retrieve deliveries or for businesses to run their own delivery services.

Enter Digit, a two-legged robot designed and built by Agility Robotics to not only approximate the look of a human, but to walk like one, too. Built out of lightweight material and capable of lifting packages that weigh up to 40 pounds, Digit can go up and down stairs, walk naturally through uneven terrain, and even react to things like being bumped without losing its balance and falling over.

Human like abilities become extremely important when engineering a robot to navigate the nuances of various environments. Gaining access to a customer’s door often requires walking through obstacles, including going up stairs and dealing with other challenges, which can be hard for robots with wheels to do since only about 1 percent of homes in the United States are wheelchair-accessible, according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Digit has been designed to walk upright without wasting energy, so it has no issue traversing the same types of environments most people do every day.

Digit’s unique design also allows it to tightly fold itself up for easy storage in the back of a self-driving vehicle until it’s called into action. Once a self-driving car arrives at its destination, Digit can be deployed to grab a package from the vehicle and carry out the final step in the delivery process.

But Digit isn’t just capable of traversing obstacles — it has a hidden advantage. While Digit needs to function on its own, the desire to keep it lightweight and capable of dynamic movement led to an innovative idea: Letting it tap the resources of another robot — one that’s equipped with advanced sensors and heavy computing hardware — for additional support and analytical skills when needed.

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

Outfitted with a LiDAR and a few stereo cameras, Digit itself has just enough sensory power to navigate through basic scenarios. If it encounters an unexpected obstacle, it can send an image back to the vehicle and have the vehicle configure a solution. The car could even send that information into the cloud and request help from other systems to enable Digit to navigate, providing multiple levels of assistance that help keep the robot light and nimble. Digit’s light weight also helps ensure it has a long run time, which is essential for a self-driving delivery business that will be operating most of the day.

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

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