U-M, Ford Open Robotics Complex to Accelerate Advanced Technology

Ford Motor Co. Robotics Building (left), robots (right)
U-Michigan and Ford Motor Co. today opened a facility on the school’s North Campus where they’ll develop a variety of robots. // Photos courtesy of the University of Michigan

The University of Michigan and Ford Motor Co. in Dearborn today opened a facility on the school’s North Campus in Ann Arbor where they’ll develop a variety of advanced robot technologies.

U-M’s Ford Motor Co. Robotics Building is a four-story, $75-million, 134,000-square-foot complex and is the new hub of the U-M Robotics Institute.

The building’s first three floors contain custom 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 research lab on a university campus, as well as 100 Ford researchers and engineers.

The new facility brings together U-M researchers from 23 different buildings and 10 top-10 programs. With the new infrastructure, researchers working on two-legged disaster response robots can test them on a 30-mph treadmill studded with obstacles, or on a stair-stepped “robot playground” designed with the help of artificial intelligence.

“This is a truly dazzling facility full of some of the most advanced research and teaching infrastructure in the world,” says Jessy Grizzle, director of the U-M Robotics Institute. “But what I’m most excited about is the people it will bring together and what they will be able to accomplish collectively.”

Ford engineers working at U-M will explore how the company’s upright Digit robots can work in human spaces while taking autonomous vehicles from robotic computer simulations to on-road testing at U-M’s nearby Mcity proving ground.

“As Ford continues the most profound transformation in our history with electrification, connectivity and automation, advancing our collaboration with the University of Michigan will help us accelerate superior experiences for our customers while modernizing our business,” says Ken Washington, chief technology officer at Ford. “We also will broaden our learning through daily exposure to many robotics activities, such as considering how our Digit robots not only technically can master delivering packages from autonomous vehicles but also become valued parts of our neighborhoods.”

According to Ford, the facility is key to its transformed and modernized research and product development processes aimed at disrupting the transportation landscape. Key research will focus on:

  • The future of moving goods more efficiently, as the pandemic further fuels online retail growth. Ford recently purchased several Digit robots, the first commercially available robot with arms and legs, to work with humans and in human spaces.
  • Experimenting with a four-legged robot, Spot, to laser-scan plants — helping engineers update the original computer-aided design used to prepare to retool for new products.
  • Self-driving vehicles and their role in the future of cities. Members of Ford’s autonomous vehicle team will work at the new facility. Ford’s approach incorporates purpose-built vehicles into a comprehensive and integrated autonomous vehicle operating system that enables choice, convenience and value for the movement of both people and goods.

“Autonomous vehicles have the opportunity to change the future of transportation and the way we move,” says Tony Lockwood, technical manager of autonomous vehicle research at Ford. “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.”

The Ford Robotics Building anchors the west end of the Michigan Avenue mobility testbed that begins in Detroit’s Corktown neighborhood and runs through Dearborn to Ann Arbor.

With the new facility, the U-M Robotics Institute says it aims to advance human-centered robots — machines and systems that interact with people and move through our spaces, extending the human body and the process of human cognition. New labs enabling this include:

  • The Ronald D. and Regina C. McNeil Walking Robotics Laboratory for developing and testing legged robots, with an in-ground treadmill that can hit 31 mph and a 20 percent grade, as well as carry obstacles. Walking robots could aid in disaster relief and lead to better prosthetics and exoskeletons.
  • Rehabilitation lab, for advanced prosthetics and robotic controls. Its movable “earthquake platform” can tilt in any direction, while force-feedback plates measure ground contact.
  • Three-story fly zone to test drones and other autonomous aerial vehicles indoors, before moving to the adjacent outdoor M-Air research facility. Autonomous aerial vehicles could perform safer inspection of infrastructure like windmills and bridges.
  • 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.
  • Artificial intelligence-designed “robot playground” outdoor obstacle course for testing robots on stairs, rocks, and water, surrounded by motion capture cameras.
  • 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.
  • Aaron Friedman Marine Hydrodynamics Lab, which houses a 360-foot-long indoor body of water for testing robotic and conventional watercraft.
  • Space Physics Research Lab develops and tests robotic spacecraft and instruments for deployment across the solar system.

“I don’t know of any building like this in the world,” said Eric Michielssen, associate dean for research at Michigan Engineering and a professor of electrical and computer engineering. “These state-of-the-art labs are fitted with some of the most advanced scientific instruments. Couple that with the fact that they will bring together researchers and students from across campus and beyond, and it’s clear this will be an unbelievable intellectual environment for the development of next-generation robots.”

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