It’s not a bird, it’s not a plane, it’s a new improvement to robotics research at the University.  

Construction began last month for the College of Engineering’s new, 9,600-square-foot, 50-foot-high, state-of-the-art drone-testing facility, and will be completed by the end of the year according to a University of Michigan press release. S. Jack Hu, vice president for research, said the facility will be the best of its kind.

“We’re giving our students and faculty the most comprehensive, safe testing facilities possible for these vehicles, which hold great promise for a wide range of applications,” Hu said.

Varying in size, drones have the potential to be used for military purposes, transport, environmental surveillance, data collection and package delivery, among other things.

The $800,000 project, dubbed M-Air, will be a netted, outdoor facility, which aerospace engineering professor Ella Atkins says allows testing to be as realistic as possible while still remaining safe.

“The reason it’s important to have an outdoor facility is a lot of the hardest questions in handling these vehicles involve imperfect navigation, bad weather, wind, the kind of environmental conditions that you can’t really create in an indoor space,” she said. “It’s just too perfect indoors –– the temperature, lighting, no precipitation.”

Federal Aviation Administration regulations restrict researchers to conducting outdoor drone flights at low altitudes, and only to where they can still be seen by the operator. Additionally, outdoor drone flights on the University’s campus must go through a University approval process to avoid interference with University hospital helicopters and other aircraft. The M-Air facility will technically be considered indoors, therefore test flights taking place within it do not require any such approval.

“The FAA regulations don’t guarantee safety. They’re intended for responsible, experienced pilots, and on more tested systems,” Atkins said. “Our students aren’t experienced pilots. They, and our faculty members, are building new hardware that’s not necessarily going to work the first, second, third or even the fourth time.”

And mere yards away, the University and Ford Motor Company will be partnering to begin construction of the $75 million, four-story, 140,000-square-foot Ford Motor Company Robotics Building later this fall, which will house a three-story, indoor drone “fly zone” with a more interactive environment than M-Air.

Together with Mcity, the expansive, state-of-the-art autonomous vehicle-testing facility just down the road, the Marine Hydrodynamics Lab, M-Air and the Ford Motor Company Robotics Building will provide students and faculty unfettered access to the full spectrum of robotics testing.

Alec Gallimore, the Robert J. Vlasic Dean of Engineering, said the addition gave the University unique national standing in engineering.

“When M-Air opens, Michigan Engineering will be the only engineering school in the country — perhaps in the world — with access to cutting-edge robotic test facilities for air, sea and land,” he said. “This is a key piece in our long-term plan to give our faculty and students best-in-class resources as they work to solve society’s greatest challenges and most exciting opportunities.”

Atkins said the possibilities for the facility are endless.

“We have a need for a safe flight area to try out anything students want to fly in a way that doesn’t place at risk people, other aircraft, cars, et cetera, so having this netted facility allows that to happen, whether it’s a freshman bringing a gadget with them from home and they want to try it out, or whether it’s a student team or a class or a Ph.D. student trying to do some elaborate research,” she said.

She added it won’t be just for students and faculty to use –– the College of Engineering is hoping to use the facility to host outreach events for the community, from races to design contests, “or just supporting robotics in the community in general.”

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