U-M, Ford open robotics complex to accelerate future of advanced, more equitable robotics and mobility
The University of Michigan and Ford Motor Company are opening a new advanced robotics facility. U-M’s Ford Motor Company Robotics Building is a four-story, $75-million, 134,000-square-foot complex situated on the north campus. As the new hub of the U-M Robotics Institute, its first three floors hold 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—including autonomous vehicle researchers—and engineers.
The new facility brings together U-M researchers from 23 different buildings and ten top-10 programs.
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. 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.—Ken Washington, chief technology officer, Ford Motor Company
The U-M Robotics Institute 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% 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.
For Ford, the facility is key to the company’s 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. 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.—Tony Lockwood, technical manager, Autonomous Vehicle Research, Ford Motor Company
Robots and robotics for any environment. In addition to the M-Air drone cage and Mcity Test Facility, the college is also home to the Aaron Friedman Marine Hydrodynamics Lab, which houses a 360-foot-long indoor body of water for testing robotic and conventional watercraft. Its Space Physics Research Lab develops and tests robotic spacecraft and instruments for deployment across the solar system. Inside the new building, researchers working on machines for each of those environments, and others, can learn from and inspire each other.
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, where Ford and U-M are teaming with other innovators to experiment with potential mobility solutions for the future.
In collaboration with the state of Michigan and others, Ford and U-M are involved in developing this first-of-its-kind corridor for connected and autonomous vehicles that will continue the state’s mission to lead the development of smart infrastructure and future mobility. A key goal of the initiative is to close long-standing gaps in access to public transit and transportation across southeast Michigan.