Meet Digit.

He’s a robot and in the near future he could be delivering on-line purchases to your door — at least Ford thinks so.

Ford has partnered with Agility Robotics to explore a a new way of making deliveries, one where robots like Digit provide the final link in the delivery chain.

Digit is 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.

He’s built out of lightweight material and capable of lifting packages that weigh up to 18kg.

The robot can walk up and down stairs, walk naturally through uneven terrain, and even react to things like being bumped without losing its balance and falling over.

Ford’s Vice President of Research and Advanced Engineering, and Chief Technology Officer Humans, Dr Ken Washington, said we take these abilities for granted, but they 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, he said.

That’s because only about one percent of homes in the United States are wheelchair-accessible, according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

digit - Ford robot digit 03 - Digit does the heavy liftingDigit 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.

It’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 says Dr Ken Washington Digit isn’t just capable of traversing obstacles — it has a hidden advantage.

While Digit needs to function on its own, the need to keep it lightweight and capable of dynamic movement led to an innovative idea.

It can tap into the resources of another robot — one that’s equipped with advanced sensors and heavy computing hardware — for additional support and analytical skills when needed.

digit - Ford robot digit 06 - Digit does the heavy lifting“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, the robot 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 running time, which is essential for a self-driving delivery business that will be operating most of the day.

“Whether we are working side-by-side with robots in our numerous factories around the world or living with them as they help push packages to our door, our primary goal is to ensure they are safe, reliable and capable of working alongside people in intelligent ways,” Dr Washington said.

“Through our collaboration with Agility, we are striving to determine the best way for our 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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Riley

Chris Riley has been a journalist for almost 40 years. He has spent half of his career as a writer, editor and production editor in newspapers, the rest of the time driving and writing about cars both in print and online. His love affair with cars began as a teenager with the purchase of an old VW Beetle, followed by another Beetle and a string of other cars on which he has wasted too much time and money. A self-confessed geek, he’s not afraid to ask the hard questions - at the risk of sounding silly.