If there's one staple of sci-fi fantasy that humanity has long been wishing for, it's humanoid robotic buddies. Robotics companies have been working for years to develop bipedal robots that can handle simple and mundane tasks to alleviate some of the burden on human workers.
As more companies adopt these forms of automation, the process for creating and implementing them would gradually become easier. While such a thing has not yet become commonplace, there are always irons in the fire, with companies big and small taking tentative steps in the right direction.
One such example of these tentative steps occurred back in 2019, when automotive giant Ford cut a deal with Agility Robotics, one of the foremost names in modern robotic development. The deal was for Ford to purchase a swath of Agility's proprietary Digit automatons for automated delivery purposes.
What was the original intended purpose of this deal, and more importantly, what ever happened to Ford's Digit pursuits?
What was the goal of Ford's purchase?
According to a press release from Ford released near the end of 2019, the primary purpose of the Agility Robotics deal was to explore new concepts in the field of automation — specifically in regards to deliveries.
The Digit robots purchased by Ford were actually the very first models made commercially available by Agility, fresh off the assembly line, so there was still plenty of potential for experimentation. Ford's plan was to place the Digit units on an autonomous delivery vehicle and, in the event a delivery recipient wasn't home, have the unit carry the delivery over the last 50 feet between the vehicle and the front door.
In addition to physical delivery, Ford wanted to test Digit's ability to synchronize with the automated delivery vehicles. Both devices featured wireless connectivity functions that, among other things, could share cloud-based maps and topographical data to facilitate the best possible deliveries.
What happened to Digit?
Here's where things get a bit mysterious: Following the original announcement that Ford was purchasing and testing the Digit units, the entire project went dark. There have been no further comments from Ford on the matter in the last three years — beyond a brief nod to Agility in a TechCrunch interview — nor any updates on the current status of the Digit units in Ford's possession.
The precise cause for this information blackout is unknown and difficult to estimate. It's likely not due to financial problems — not only is Ford still doing just fine for itself, but Agility Robotics is thriving as well, even continuing to make regular updates and upgrades to the Digit framework.
Compared to the models originally purchased by Ford, the current Digit units are much more advanced. Newer Digits now feature a "head" unit with digital eyes that both scan the robot's surroundings, and indicate to nearby individuals where the robot is heading.
It is possible that Ford's acquisition of the original Digit units was merely for experimental purposes, and the company did not intend to take the matter any further. Given the timing, it's also possible that the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic forced a reshuffling of priorities, though this is merely speculation given the effect of the pandemic on many other automakers and industries.
Whatever the reason, both Ford and Digit are still around, they're just haven't been any updates on the two companies' partnership or resulting projects since 2020.