Ford will buy first two bipedal robots for commercial vehicle research

Named 'Digit,' the robot aims to fill a role in online retailing and delivery

Last spring, we told you about Ford’s partnership with an Oregon-based company that is developing a two-legged, walking work robot that unfurls from the back of a delivery van, kind of like the battle droids in “Star Wars: The Phantom Menace.” Now, Ford says it has become Agility Robotics' first customer, set to receive the first two commercial robots produced. Fittingly, the automaker will display two pre-production versions at CES, the fantastical technology showcase that opens Tuesday.

Named Digit, the robot produced by Agility Robotics is aimed squarely at the Amazonification of the planet, or rather warehousing and delivery. And it presages a future in which robots will steal your low-paying, high-pressure warehouse job, and maybe your delivery driver job as well, with the robots built for the purposes of moving boxes in warehouses or delivering them from commercial delivery vehicles to their final destinations.

Ford says it’s using the first two Digits for research into how they can communicate with their commercial vehicles and their surroundings to make warehousing and delivery more efficient and affordable for customers. As an example, Ford says its connected vehicles — including autonomous delivery Transit Connect vans — can continually update cloud-based maps and share them with Digit so it knows where to go and doesn’t have to create redundant information. They’ll also feature the ability to learn where a customer prefers to have his or her packages left.

Agility Robotics says it has done extensive testing and redesigning since it first showed off Digit in May. It now has more advanced feet that allow it to balance on one foot, among other tricks, new navigational sensors and customer-ready onboard computer hardware. If Digit encounters an unexpected obstacle, it can even send an image back to the vehicle to unlock extra computing power, or to get the vehicle to request help from other cloud-based systems to enable Digit to perform its job.

Which, again, is currently performed by human beings. So here’s to the future. We hope we have one.

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