Ford Motor Company and the University of Michigan recently co-opened a new robotics lab on North Campus, allowing both the University and Ford to increase their research abilities in the robotics field.
The Board of Regents first approved plans for the $75 million building in September 2016. Engineering senior Ben Manley, co-founder of Michigan Robotic Submarine, told The Michigan Daily he is happy the University is investing in and showing a commitment to robotics, especially as it becomes an increasingly important field.
“As a leader in a robotics-oriented student org, it definitely makes me and probably other people in robotics pretty happy to know that the University is investing in robotics, because obviously it’s an important part of engineering,” Manley said. “It’s cool to see that some of the work that a lot of us think is so cool is becoming a focus of the college enough to the point that they literally made a building just for it.”
The building hosts new classrooms, offices, lab space and includes a three-story fly zone for autonomous aerial vehicles. Damen Provost, managing director of the University’s Robotics Institute, told The Daily the building was designed to encourage collaboration.
“The College of Engineering is really committed to breaking down these barriers for collaboration, and the robotics building was designed for collaboration,” Provost said. “The labs are all shared, the people are all mixed in from different departments. So it’s a big, long-term investment from the college to really break down the silos.”
Engineering senior David Baek, president of the Michigan Mars Rover Team, a student organization dedicated to building rovers for extraterrestrial land, told The Daily the new facilities will give his organization a large advantage over other school teams they compete against.
“In previous years we would do a lot of rough filming (of our Mars rover) at the Baja (racecar) test track… It’s just kind of a rocky, muddy terrain with hills that we used to drive on,” Baek said. “I don’t believe any other school has a similar Mars yard that is this close to (their own) campus.”
The classrooms in the new building were designed to reach audiences outside the University by allowing classes to be taught both online and in person. Robotics 101, a class designed to make robotics more equitable, was taught by U-M faculty both in person and online for U-M students in Fall 2020 and is also being virtually taught for students at Morehouse College and Spelman College, two historically Black colleges in Atlanta.
Jessy Grizzle, director of the Robotics Institute and professor in the College of Engineering, told The Daily that Robotics 101 aims to reinvent how engineering is taught. The course is different from other engineering courses because it does not require students to know calculus, which is not available in all high schools.
“Our fundamental premise when we built the course was that talent is uniformly distributed but opportunity is not,” Grizzle said. “We are able to design projects to replace exams that were quite challenging, but then make the mathematics grow out of one’s knowledge from high school algebra. In the end, they were working at the same level as Math 214, with the computational skills that were higher than what they would be getting in Engineering 101, for example, so the students got to see how real engineers use mathematics.”
Ford is leasing the building’s top floor to the University to perform robotics research in conjunction with U-M researchers. This is the first time Ford will have a research facility in an academic building or on a university campus. Grizzle said having Ford engineers working in the building will bring different aspects of robotics to the University.
“(We) are very used to working with our colleagues at Ford. They’re highly skilled engineers, they’re a little bit more on the practical side maybe than the academics, but that mixture is very empowering,” Grizzle said. “It’s just going to add more diversity of thought to the broad range of research projects that we conduct in the institute — we’re very excited for that.”
Grizzle also said having Ford engineers working in the building will provide new opportunities for students. He said this will be particularly helpful for graduate students, who are required to take a three-credit research experience to graduate.
“Students don’t have to have an internship at Ford to work with a Ford engineer now, because we’re going to have them up on the fourth floor,” Grizzle said. “Some of our PhD students… who want academia, may want a more applied bent to the particular kinds of research, and the fact that we can have a Ford member on a PhD committee will be just amazing.”
The new building is located in the northeast corner of North Campus near the Wilson Student Team Project Center, about one mile from the bus stop that connects to Central Campus.
“North Campus is going to be growing,” Manley said. “The bus routes better be growing with it.”
Daily Staff Reporter Justin O’Beirne can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org