By Nicole Casal Moore
Starting in early 2020, robots will drive, walk, fly and help rehabilitate or enhance human function in the $75-million Ford Motor Company Robotics Building at the University of Michigan, and officials broke ground on the facility Friday.
The 140,000-square-foot, four-story complex will house classrooms, offices, a startup-style open collaboration area and tailored lab space for a variety of robotic technologies.
Plans include a three-story fly zone for autonomous aerial vehicles, an outdoor obstacle course for walking robots, high-bay garage space for self-driving cars, and dedicated space for rehabilitation and mobility robots such as prosthetics and exoskeletons.
And in a unique agreement, Ford will lease the fourth floor to perform robotics research and engineering in collaboration with U-M and other industry leaders.
“At Michigan, our research and education are strengthened by collaborations with industry that help us drive forward in our mission while powering the economic prosperity of our state,” said President Mark Schlissel.
“I want to express my appreciation to our great partner, Ford Motor Company, not just for today, but for its legacy of supporting students and faculty across the breadth of U-M. I’m proud that this facility will lead to even greater accomplishments in education, research and societal impact from Michigan Engineering.”
Robotic technologies are advancing a vast variety of fields. Across U-M’s campus, more than 50 faculty members, including many in the College of Engineering, School of Kinesiology and the Medical School, are utilizing or studying robotic technologies.
They’re making prosthetic limbs that could one day be controlled by the brain; self-driving and connected cars designed to transform transportation; spacecraft to study the solar system and Earth; autonomous submarines that can map the ocean floor or inspect Navy ship hulls for dangerous mines; as well as a host of walking machines inspired by insects, crabs and humans that have the potential to eventually assist search or rescue tasks.
“This ‘groundbreaking’ is not actually about moving dirt. It is really about breaking ground on new norms of work, play, transit and daily living,” said Alec D. Gallimore, the Robert J. Vlasic Dean of Engineering, Richard F. and Eleanor A. Towner Professor, Arthur F. Thurnau Professor, and professor of aerospace engineering and of applied physics.
“This amazing facility will be home to robots that improve the quality of life by addressing a wide range of societal needs. In tandem with M-Air across the street, Mcity down the road and the Friedman Marine Hydrodynamics Laboratory across campus, this university is the only academic institution that can boast test facilities for robots on land, in air, in water and in space.”
M-Air is a new outdoor fly lab for testing autonomous aerial vehicles. Mcity is a public-private partnership led by U-M that is working to advance next-generation mobility. Its test facility is a one-of-a-kind simulated urban and suburban environment where researchers can test potentially dangerous scenarios that self-driving cars must master before they’re road-ready.
The building will also make U-M one of a few institutions with a dedicated robotics facility. In addition to the groundbreaking, the college will launch a new strategic thrust: the Robotics Institute, which will be housed in the new building.
“The Robotics Institute is really all about people, and this new building will make it possible for the roboticists of today, as well as those of tomorrow, to work together across disciplines in unprecedented ways,” said Jessy Grizzle, U-M’s inaugural director of robotics.
“Today, our students and faculty members are scattered in 12 different departments and six different schools and colleges. This building will bring them together. It will facilitate the exchange of ideas. It will inspire bold ideas. And its advanced labs will provide the space to make those dreams real.”
Grizzle, the Elmer G. Gilbert Distinguished University Professor of Engineering, Jerry W. and Carol L. Levin Professor of Engineering, and professor of electrical engineering and computer science, and of mechanical engineering, said he looks forward to collaborating with Ford as well. He envisions that some industry engineers in the building could also serve in adjunct positions so the institutions can create new courses and learning experiences for students.
Ford and U-M’s partnership goes back 60 years. U-M is one of the top suppliers of talent to Ford, company officials say. The company is the single largest corporate donor to the university, supporting more than 50 units across the university over the course of the partnership.
The company also sponsors a broad collaborative research portfolio through the Ford/U-M Strategic Alliance with faculty across the university. And today, the company’s collaboration on autonomous vehicle development with the College of Engineering is its largest university research project to date.
“With the strength of the University of Michigan — including Mcity and the new Ford Robotics building, the American Center for Mobility in Ypsilanti, Ford world headquarters and engineering campus in Dearborn, and our growing presence in Detroit — southeastern Michigan is fast becoming a corridor of mobility innovation unlike you’ll find anywhere else in the world,” said Ken Washington, vice president of research and advanced engineering and chief technology officer of Ford.
The building will be situated on the northeast corner of Hayward and Draper on North Campus, adjacent to M-Air and the Space Research Building.