As robots and autonomous systems are poised to become part of our everyday lives, the University of Michigan and Ford Motor Company are opening a one-of-a-kind facility where they’ll develop robots and roboticists that help make lives better, keep people safe and build a more equitable society.
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. Through a unique agreement, 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 ten 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, for example. Biomedical engineers will have access to “earthquake platforms” with force-feedback plates to guide their development of lighter-weight, more efficient prosthetic legs. And Ford engineers will explore how their upright Digit robots can work in human spaces while taking AVs from robotic computer simulations to on-road testing at U-M’s world-class proving ground just down the road.
Advanced, more diverse and equitable robotics
Designed by HED, the building’s architecture echoes the U-M Robotics Institute’s boundary-breaking and inclusive spirit.
The lobby is 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. Classrooms are set up for hybrid instruction – a feature planned even before the pandemic. U-M and Ford are working together to harness that feature, as well as a more inclusive curriculum, in collaboration 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 U-M that doesn’t require calculus and levels the playing field for students from lower-resource high schools that didn’t offer advanced courses.
World-class labs for human-centered robotics
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 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 and NASA, 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.