Inside University of Michigan’s new $75M robotics facility

U-M Robotics Center

The University of Michigan (U-M) and Ford Motor Company today opened a $75 million, state-of-the-art robotics research center. The U-M Ford Motor Company Robotics Building brings together U-M researchers from 23 buildings and 10 top-10 programs.

As the new hub of the U-M Robotics Institute, its first three floors hold U-M research labs for robots that fly, walk, roll and augment the human body – as well as classrooms, offices and makerspaces. The fourth floor houses Ford’s first robotics and mobility lab at a university campus, as well as 100 Ford researchers and engineers.

“To me, this new building brings to life a collaborative, interdisciplinary community that I’m proud to host at Michigan Engineering. Our Robotics Institute upholds an explicitly inclusive climate and a culture that believes in the field’s potential to serve as an enabler for all, especially those who have previously been underserved,” said Alec D. Gallimore, the Robert J. Vlasic Dean of Engineering, the Richard F. and Eleanor A. Towner Professor of Engineering, an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor and a professor of aerospace engineering. “In this way, we aim to push the robotics field, and engineering more broadly, to become equity-centered—intentionally closing, rather than unintentionally expanding, societal gaps.”

Inside the labs

The goal of the 134,000-square-foot facility is to develop robots that help make lives better, keep people safe and build a more equitable society. Here’a a few highlights of labs included in the new facility:

  • A 30 MPH treadmill studded with obstacles and a stair-stepped “robot playground” to test two-legged robots
  • “Earthquake platforms” with force-feedback plates to develop lighter-weight, more efficient prosthetic legs.
  • Three-story fly zone to test drones and other autonomous aerial vehicles indoors, before moving to the adjacent outdoor M-Air research facility.
  • A Mars yard designed with input from planetary scientists at U-M to enable researchers and student teams to test rover and lander concepts on a landscape that mimics the Martian surface.
  • High-bay garage space for self-driving cars, located just down the road from the Mcity test facility, for putting connected and automated vehicles through their paces in simulated urban and suburban environments.

U-M is also home to the Aaron Friedman Marine Hydrodynamics Lab, a 360-foot-long indoor body of water for testing robotic and conventional watercraft, and the Space Physics Research Lab for developing and testing robotic spacecraft and instruments for deployment across the solar system.

Ford said the facility will be key to its development of technologies to disrupt transportation. On top of its autonomous vehicle research, Ford recently purchased the first two Digit bipedal robots from RBR50 company Agility Robotics. Ford is testing their ability to move goods. Ford is also testing Boston Dynamics’ Spot quadruped to scan plants and help update the original CAD model of the plants.

“Autonomous vehicles have the opportunity to change the future of transportation and the way we move,” said Tony Lockwood, technical manager, Autonomous Vehicle Research, Ford Motor Company. “As this new technology rolls out, having our Ford team working on campus collaborating with the academic world will help us shorten the time it takes to move research projects to automotive engineering, unlocking the potential of autonomous vehicles.”

You can explore a 3D model of the U-M Ford Motor Company Robotics Building using the tool below:

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