For decades, the University of Michigan has been at the forefront of robotics engineering. That’s why Ford Motor Co. recently partnered with the school to build a new robotics research facility on campus.
The four-story building features 134,000 square feet of space devoted to traditional factory robots, in additive to cutting-edge machines that crawl, roll, float and fly. It serves as the hub of the Michigan Robotics Institute.
The top floor of the $75 million facility also houses Ford’s first robotics and mobility research lab on a college campus, as well as 100 automotive engineers.
“As [we] continue 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 Motor Co.
“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,” adds Washington.
The state-of-the-art building is designed to encourage collaborative research and inclusivity. For instance, the lobby features a wide-open atrium surrounded by transparent glass-walled labs.
“It was designed with outreach in mind, so passersby and visitors can watch research happen in real time,” explains Jessy Grizzle, a professor of engineering who serves as director of the University of Michigan Robotics Institute. “Classrooms are set up for hybrid instruction, and that was planned even before the pandemic.”
One unique aspect is a more inclusive curriculum and a collaborative initiative with Morehouse and Spelman colleges, two historically Black institutions in Atlanta. Students from those schools can enroll remotely in Robotics 101, a pilot course at the University of Michigan that doesn’t require calculus. According to Grizzle, it “levels the playing field for students from lower-resource schools that [don’t] offer advanced courses.”
The new facility also brings together U of M researchers from 23 different buildings and 10 top-10 programs, ranging from biomedicine to aerospace physics and electrical engineering to marine hydrodynamics. In particular, R&D activity within the building will focus on human-centered robots—machines and systems that interact with people, extend the human body or process human cognition.
Facilities include a walking robotics laboratory for developing and testing legged robots; a three-story “fly zone” to test drones and other autonomous aerial vehicles indoors, before moving to the adjacent outdoor M-Air research facility; and an AI-designed “robot playground” outdoor obstacle course for testing machines on stairs, rocks and water, surrounded by motion capture cameras.
“When it comes to manufacturing applications, we’re focusing a lot of our attention on collaborative robotics,” says Damen Provost, managing director of the Robotics Institute. “We are looking at the interaction between people and robots, in addition to developing new ways to give robots more autonomy. The goal is to enable smart manufacturing by giving assembly line robots the data they need to make faster decisions.
“Manipulation is one of our specialties, because this will be important for more robots to be used in the auto industry for final assembly and trim applications,” explains Provost. “We are doing a lot of work with robots that can tackle fine motor skill applications, including soft robots that are safe for humans to be around and can perform tasks that traditional machines can’t.”
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. At MCity, a 25-acre test track that is located nearby, Ford and U of M engineers are working with other innovators to study potential mobility options for the future, including a first-of-its-kind corridor for connected and autonomous vehicles.
“Autonomous vehicles have the opportunity to change the future of transportation and the way we move,” explains Tony Lockwood, technical manager for autonomous vehicle research at Ford. “As this new technology rolls out, having our [engineers] 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.”