Ford to Embed Robotics Researchers at University of Michigan

U-M’s Ford Motor Company Robotics Building is a four-story, 134,000-sq.-ft. complex situated on the university’s North Campus, the home of a significant part of the university’s science and engineering community.

By Joseph Szczesny

In a bid to stay ahead of technology in a rapidly changing business landscape as well as recruit a skilled and knowledgeable workforce, Ford is teaming up with the University of Michigan to study robots and autonomous systems.

Ken Washington, Ford chief technology officer, says the partnership is not just about technology development. It’s also about finding new ways of satisfying customers as business models evolve with mobility as a service.

“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,” Washington says during the virtual dedication ceremony for a new, $75 million Ford Motor Company Robotics Building in Ann Arbor, MI.

“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,” he adds.

U-M’s Ford Motor Company Robotics Building is a four-story, 134,000-sq.-ft. (12,450-sq.-m) complex situated on the university’s North Campus, the home of a significant part of the university’s science and engineering community.

The first three floors hold custom U-M research labs for robots that fly, walk, roll, and augment the human body – as well as classrooms and offices. The fourth floor houses Ford’s first robotics and mobility research lab on a university campus, as well as 100 Ford researchers and engineers. Members of Ford’s autonomous vehicle team will work at the new robotics building. “Autonomous vehicles have the opportunity to change the future of transportation and the way we move,” says Tony Lockwood, technical manager-autonomous vehicle research for Ford.

“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,” he says.

Ford engineers also will explore how their upright robots can work in human spaces while taking autonomous vehicles from robotic computer simulations to on-road testing at U-M’s proving ground located on the North Campus.

The new building (pictured below) has room for U-M researchers who had been spread out among 23 buildings. With the new infrastructure, researchers working on two-legged disaster-response robots can test them on a 30-mph (48-km/h) treadmill studded with obstacles, or on an artificial intelligence- designed “robot playground” obstacle course for testing robots on stairs, rocks, and water, surrounded by motion-capture cameras.

Biomedical engineers will have access to “earthquake platforms” with force-feedback plates to guide their development of lighter-weight, more efficient prosthetic legs, they say.

Jessy Grizzle, director of the U-M Robotics Institute, notes the lobby of the new building is a wide-open atrium surrounded by glass-walled labs. It was designed with outreach in mind, so passersby and visitors can watch research happen in real time.

“This is a truly dazzling facility full of some of the most advanced research and teaching infrastructure in the world. But what I’m most excited about is the people it will bring together and what they will be able to accomplish collectively,” says Grizzle.

Grizzle adds the 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 historically Black institutions in Atlanta.

Students from those schools can enroll remotely in Robotics 101, a pilot course at U-M that does not require calculus and levels the playing field for students from lower-resource high schools that did not offer advanced courses, U-M officials say.

The U-M Robotics Institute aims to advance human-centered robots at a “Walking Robotics Laboratory” for developing and testing legged robots, with an in-ground treadmill that can hit 31 mph (50 km/h) and a 20% grade, as well as carry obstacles, to help in disaster relief and lead to better prosthetics and exoskeletons.

The U-M Robotics Institute has a three-story fly zone to test drones and other autonomous aerial vehicles indoors that could perform safer inspections of infrastructure such as windmills and bridges. Outside is a “Mars Yard” 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.

Inside the building is a high-bay garage space for self-driving cars, located just down the road from the “Mcity” test center, for putting connected and automated vehicles through their paces in simulated urban and suburban environments.