Ford and the University of Michigan launch robotics complex

Top tech research, which will include robotics and autonomous vehicles, are among the many features of the 134,000 square-foot facility on the University of Michigan's north campus.

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Image: Ford Motor Company

Ford and the University of Michigan (U-M) announced the official grand opening of the Ford Robotics Building at the University of Michigan's north campus. The four-story, $75 million, 134,000 square-foot complex will "help accelerate the future of advanced, more equitable mobility," Ford said in a press release. The two organizations said they hope the facility will be used to develop robots and roboticists that help make lives better, keep people safe and build a more equitable society.

It will be the new hub of the U-M Robotics Institute on the first three floors, which feature U-M research labs "for robots that walk, roll and augment the human body." Also in this location: classrooms, offices and makerspaces. 

U-M Robotics Institutes aim to advance human-centered robots (machines and systems that interact with people), extending the human body and process of human cognition. 

Ford roboticists, as well as autonomous vehicle researchers, will be located on the fourth floor, and will benefit from exposure to a wider range of work in the field. There will be 100 Ford engineers and researchers. The location anchors Michigan mobility corridor's west end. Ford's reborn Michigan Central Station will be built by 2022 and a transformed Dearborn development campus by 2023. 

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Ford's portion of the facility, for research and development, will offer space to roboticists whose goals are "aimed at disrupting the transportation landscape." The focus of researchers will be on moving goods efficiently, experimenting with a four-legged robot called Spot, laser-scanning plants and self-driving vehicles and the role they will play in the future.

Designed by HED, the building's architecture, said Ford, "Echoes the U-M Robotics Institute's boundary-breaking and inclusive spirit. Ford and the University of Michigan said they want to emphasize that robotics can create a more equitable society by collaborating on a more inclusive curriculum. It will, they hope, open more opportunities for underserved students and bring together a broad range of educational disciplines to drive the field toward a future that puts people, rather than technology, first." Designed for outreach, passersby can watch research happening, because the lobby is an open atrium.

"To me, this new building brings to life a collaborative, interdisciplinary community that I'm proud to host at Michigan Engineering, said Alec D. Gallimore, Robert J. Vlasic dean of engineering, Richard F. and Eleanor A. Towner professor of engineering, and Arthur F. Thurnau professor of aerospace engineering, also in the same press release. "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-centered--intentionally closing, rather than unintentionally expanding, societal gaps."

The new facility will bring together U-M researchers from 23 buildings and 10 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 proving ground located "just down the road."

Classrooms will be designed for hybrid instruction and U-M and Ford are collaborating with historically Black institutions in Atlanta for a more inclusive curriculum--students in those schools can enroll remotely in the U-M pilot course Robotics 101, which doesn't require calculus and "levels the playing field for students from lower-resource high schools that don't offer advanced courses."

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