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Developed in partnership with the University of Michigan, the recently opened Ford Motor Company Robotics Building is a new US$75m centrepiece in US robotics research, learning and collaboration…

As robots and autonomous systems are poised to become part of our everyday lives, the University of Michigan (U-M) and Ford Motor Company are opening a one-of-a- kind facility where they’ll develop robots and roboticists designed to that help improve lives, keep people safe and build a more equitable society.

U-M’s Ford Motor Company Robotics Building is a four-storey, US$75m (£54m), 134,000ft2 (12,500m2) 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.

“To me, this new building brings to life a collaborative, interdisciplinary community that I’m proud to host at Michigan Engineering,” says Alec D Gallimore, the Robert J Vlasic dean of engineering, the Richard F and Eleanor A Towner professor of engineering, an Arthur F Thurnau professor and 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.

“In this way, we aim to push the robotics field, and engineering more broadly, to become equity-centred – intentionally closing, rather than unintentionally expanding, societal gaps.”

The new facility brings together U-M researchers from 23 different buildings and 10 top-10 programmes. With the new infrastructure, researchers working on two-legged disaster response robots can test them on a 30mph 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 be able to explore how their upright Digit robots can work in human spaces while taking autonomous vehicles from robotic computer simulations to on-road testing at U-M’s Mcity proving ground just down the road.

“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 modernising our business,” says Ken Washington, chief technology officer, Ford Motor Company.

“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 neighbourhoods.”

Community outreach
Designed by HED, the building’s architecture intentionally echoes what the university describes as the U-M Robotics Institute’s “boundary-breaking and inclusive spirit”.

“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.”

The lobby is a wide-open atrium surrounded by transparent glass-walled labs. It was designed with outreach in mind, so passers-by and visitors can watch research happen in real time. Classrooms are set up for hybrid instruction – a feature planned even before the Covid-19 pandemic.

U-M and Ford are working together to harness that feature, as well as a more inclusive curriculum, in collaboration with historically black institutions in Atlanta, Georgia. Students from those schools can enrol 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.

Human-centred robotics
Overall, the U-M Robotics Institute aims to advance human-centred 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 31mph and a 20% grade, as well as carry obstacles. This lab will explore how walking robots could aid in disaster relief and lead to better prosthetics and exoskeletons, for example.

There’s a rehabilitation lab for advanced prosthetics and robotic controls. It features the aforementioned movable ‘earthquake platform’, which can tilt in any direction while force-feedback plates measure ground contact.

A three-storey fly zone will test drones and other autonomous aerial vehicles indoors before moving to the adjacent outdoor M-Air research facility. It’s believed that autonomous aerial vehicles could perform safer inspection of infrastructure such as windmills and bridges.

Then there’s the Mars yard, a facility 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.

Elsewhere, an artificial intelligence-designed ‘robot playground’ outdoor obstacle course will test robots on stairs, rocks, and water, surrounded by motion capture cameras, while a high-bay garage space for self-driving cars, located near to the Mcity test facility, will put connected and automated vehicles through their paces in simulated urban and suburban environments.

“I don’t know of any building like this in the world,” says Eric Michielssen, associate dean for research at Michigan Engineering and the Louise Ganiard Johnson professor of engineering in 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.”

For Ford, the facility is key to the company’s “transformed and modernised 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 coronavirus 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.

Teams will also experiment with Boston Dynamics’ four-legged robot, Spot, to laser-scan plants – helping engineers update the original computer-aided design used to prepare to retool for new products.

Furthermore, self-driving vehicles and their role in the future of cities will be evaluated, with members of Ford’s autonomous vehicle team working at the new facility. Ford’s approach here incorporates purpose-built vehicles into a comprehensive and integrated autonomous vehicle operating system designed to enable 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, autonomous vehicle research, Ford Motor Company. “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.”

Access all environments
In addition to the M-Air drone cage and Mcity proving ground, the college is also home to the Aaron Friedman Marine Hydrodynamics Lab, which houses a 360ft-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, will be able to learn from and inspire each other, according to Ford.

The Ford Robotics Building anchors the west end of the Michigan Avenue mobility testbed that begins in Detroit’s Corktown neighbourhood 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 a 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. According to Ford, a key goal of the initiative is to close long-standing gaps in access to public transit and transportation across southeast Michigan.

This article originally appeared in the April 2021 issue of Robotics & Innovation Magazine

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