Michigan, Ford launch ‘dazzling’ robotics facility

This 'Disneyland for robots' will be a high-end learning environment for students, researchers, faculty and company developers who will be pushing technology for humankind.
By: | March 16, 2021
Photos courtesy of the University of Michigan

“Search and rescue robots that can aid first responders in disasters. Drones that can assist inspectors in building safer bridges. Prosthetic limbs that can work with the brain to restore functions for stroke victims. Self-driving cars that can save tens of thousands of lives every year.” – Alec Gallimore, Dean of Engineering at the University of Michigan

Those are just a few of the endless possibilities that will be in the works for years to come inside Michigan’s new Ford Motor Company Robotics Building, which was unveiled to the public for the first time on Tuesday during a virtual webinar.

This unparalleled four-story, $75 million facility is a cross-collaborative effort between the university and the automaker that will feature cutting-edge research and insight into the ways in which robots can “fly, walk, roll and augment the human body”. With robot treadmills, a three-story indoor fly zone and unique outdoor spaces that simulate various terrains including Mars, this will be the ultimate robotics classroom for both the university and for Ford.

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

Both the university and Ford leaders stressed the importance of the 134,000-square-foot facility not only in developing technologies that may change humankind but also in giving opportunities in preparing a more diverse pipeline of students that will be able to lead those initiatives into the next century.

“This human focus will lead efforts that help the robotics field and engineering more broadly to become equity centered, intentionally closing rather than unintentionally expanding societal gaps,” said Gallimore, who is also a professor of aerospace 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. We’re bringing great minds together across our campus and beyond, leveraging the brilliant and diverse perspective of our faculty and our students.”

Ken Washington, Chief Technology Officer at Ford Motor Company, noted that the more inclusive education efforts – which include a collaborative curriculum partnership with Historically Black Colleges and Universities and a Robotics 101 course to get sutdents more easily funneled into the field – will create a better future.

“We need to diversify the talent pool in tech,” Washington said. “The more diverse the humans are on the front end, the better the tech is on the back end. That’s why we are partnering with the University of Michigan to develop a more inclusive curriculum. And that’s why we’re expanding robotics into other fields focused on societal impacts. We aren’t just building cars, trucks and mobility experiences. We’re building pipelines to connect more communities with better opportunities.”

Putting it all together

Students at Michigan truly will have the best of all worlds at their fingertips, including hybrid classrooms, something the university says it prepared for before the pandemic. (The partnership was first announced in 2018.)

Glass-fronted laboratories envelop the building’s atrium area so visitors can catch a glimpse of the research happening at the facility, which was designed by architecture firm HED. Beyond the lobby area there is an unmatched array of different areas filled with robotic technology to explore, including:

  • A walking robotics laboratory that will allow for the creation and testing of mobile robots, including a large treadmill that can accelerate to 31 mph and hold obstacles that they can try to maneuver around. The goal is to further develop robots that can provide assistance in disaster devastated areas.
  • A rehabilitation lab to test prosthetic devices and controls on an “earthquake platform” to harness better outcomes for those who have lost limbs in accidents.
  • A fly zone that features the latest in drone and autonomous aerial vehicle development that ultimately can detect flaws in high structures such as bridges.
  • An artificial intelligence outdoor scape that will test robots’ ability to navigate steps, rocks and other environmental hazards.
  • Garage space bays for self-driving cars and those who will be working on them.

“I don’t know of any building like this in the world,” said Eric Michielssen, associate dean for research at Michigan Engineering and 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.”

The new building has been created to work in tandem with others at the university – its M-Air drone testing cage, its Mcity mobility test facility, its Marine Hydrodynamics Lab for testing robots and vehicles in water and its Space Physics Research Lab for development of robotic spacecraft including landing devices. It also will help connect Ford, which will have a fourth-floor research lab of its own, to its Michigan Central Station in Detroit and Dearborn development campus. Ford leaders say they are exploring robotic technology beyond vehicles.

“This building is all about connections,” said Washington. “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.”

Mario Santillo, technical expert at Ford, called the facility a “Disneyland for robots,” and the same can be said for the students who will be on campus testing these technologies. The collaboration between Ford and the University of Michigan has boundless benefits.

“By mixing academics and engineers together in the same facility, we can benefit from researchers of all different backgrounds working together,” he said. “We can advance robotics more quickly. One day a student can be learning about robotics theory in a classroom, and the next day working hand in hand with Ford roboticists. by fostering these closer relationships with world class faculty and students, we can find new ways to work and accelerate the creation of new robotics applications.”