Robots On Foot Are Harder Than Robots on Wheels

Ford CTO Ken Washington, who used to be like my boss’s boss’s boss’s boss’s boss when I was at Ford, and seems like a great guy, has a post up about Digit, a humanoid robot that Ford is working on for last-mile deliveries.

Reading the post and watching the video, I have a few reactions:

  1. This is awesome.
  2. This will be insanely hard.
  3. Giving a robot a lidar for a head is a stroke of genius, at least from an aesthetic perspective.

Ford is completely right that the last-mile (really, last-ten-yards) delivery problem is going to be a huge issue. Right now logistics companies rely on drivers to both operate a vehicle and to walk deliveries to customers’ front doors. Self-driving cars solve the first problem, but in a lot of cases that won’t ultimately have much of an impact if we can’t solve the second task.

So the motivation for Digit is spot-on.

But walking robots are bananas-level difficult.

Look no further than this video with the awesome title, “A Compilation of Robots Falling Down at the DARPA Robotics Challenge”:

Granted, this video is from 4 years ago and progress has been made, but my impression is that walking robots make self-driving cars look like an easy problem.

I remember taking an edX course from Russ Tedrake at MIT called “Underactuated Robotics” that was concerned with, among other things, walking robots. This course was so, so hard. The control problems inherent in a multi-joint, walking robot are of a staggering level of mathematical complexity.

Digit’s demo video is awesome, but we’ve all learned to be skeptical of demo videos. If Ford, together with Agility Robotics, can really crack the nut on a walking robot that can deliver packages, then they won’t even need to solve the autonomous vehicle problem. They’ll have the whole world beating down their door.

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