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Audi drives repairs with telepresence robots' help

Sharon Gaudin | Jan. 4, 2016
Lets mechanics around the globe consult with factory technicians.

audi vgo robot vecna
An Audi technician uses Vecna's VGo robot to diagnose a problem in a vehicle. Credit: Audi

A mechanic working at an American Audi dealership is stumped by a problem with a car.

Solving the problem would be so much easier if a technician from the manufacturing plant in Germany could look over his shoulder, hear the noise the car was making and see under the hood.

Impossible, right?

Well, actually, it's not.

Audi, a German automobile manufacturer, has been testing telepresence robots in 68 dealerships across the United States. They're also piloting a few in Mexico, Singapore and Germany -- but the main test bed is in the U.S.

The company is using VGo robots , made by Cambridge, Mass.-based Vecna Technologies to improve communication, save money and get cars repaired faster.

A pilot program began in 2014, and now a telepresence robot is planned for every one of the approximately 292 U.S. dealerships by the end of 2016. Audi executives say the robots are already helping their human workers do a better job.

"If the dealer has a telepresence unit, [the robots] can follow the mechanic to a car and work with them as if I was standing shoulder to shoulder with him," said Brian Stockton, general manager of technical support for Audi of America. "We can see what [the mechanic] is seeing. We can record what he's recording... We can do this seamlessly and quickly instead of going back and forth with emails."

VGo is a wheeled, robotic system that runs on a battery and uses Wi-Fi. The remote user controls the system, giving it commands to move to where it needs to be, use the two onboard cameras and give the user live streaming video.

The robot is controlled by the remote user -- in this case, the technician based in Germany, in most cases.

The robot also has a screen where a human head would be, allowing the remote user to see what's in front of it and enabling people near the robot to see the remote user's face.

"It's making my job easier and quicker," said Lee Ludolph, a shop foreman and technician at an Atlanta-area Audi dealership. "We can get answers quicker because [factory technicians] can see what we're seeing. It's like they're standing beside us. Before it was a phone call and we had to take pictures or sound recordings and upload it to them. This way, they can see and hear it all at one time."

Broadening use

Vecna, which acquired New Hampshire-based VGo Communications and its telepresence robots last July, has its VGo robots used at Massachusetts General Hospital and Brigham and Women's Hospital for patient interaction, as well as by JetBlue for customer service. NASA's also used these robots to help remote employees participate in meetings, among other things.


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