It goes by name of Fluffy and, like any self-respecting dog, it loves to go for a walk. The difference is that Fluffy has a hard metal skin, is powered by batteries and uses LIDAR sensors to help him navigate his way around the new Ford Robotics Building newly opened on the University of Michigan campus in Ann Arbor.
The $75 million, 134,000 square-foot facility is the result of a collaborative industry-academic partnership. It is the latest step in Ford’s transition from classic carmaker to becoming a “high-technology manufacturer.” The center will serve multiple purposes as a combination research lab and teaching facility.
“We are going to be working on drone technology, walking robots, roving robots, all types of robots in this facility and the ways in which they can make people’s lives better,” Ford’s Chief Technology Officer Ken Washington said Tuesday.
No “Terminators” at this robot lab
In the process, the project aims to make robots seem a little less frightening to a general public that has often seen such technology presented as deadly threats in films like “The Terminator,” said Washington. “We’ll do it in a way that addresses questions and fears around safety and security. The more people see how these robots can interact with society and interact with humans, the more comfortable they’ll get with them.”
The Ford Robotics building, located on the university’s North Campus, will bring together academic researchers currently spread out among 23 different buildings – not including the roughly 100 R&D team members who will be moved to the facility by Ford.
The second-largest of the U.S. automakers intends to focus on automotive applications for robotics at the new lab, said Washington, especially the development of autonomous vehicles. But there could be other benefits for the carmaker and its customers, both retail and commercial. That could include robots capable of carrying packages from a self-driving delivery truck to a recipient’s door, among other things.
From Fly Zone to Mars Yard
What Mario Santillo, Ford’s robotics research lead, describes as a “Disneyland for robots” features is the requisite classroom space but also plenty of room for hands-on work:
- A three-story “Fly Zone” will allow indoor testing of drone technology;
- A “Robotics Playground” will be used for testing all sorts of robots, including some looking like animals, others more humanoid;
- Researchers will turn to the “Rehab Lab” to work on more advanced prosthetics and other devices to assist those who’ve lost limbs or suffered other disabilities;
- The “Mars Yard” simulates what it’s like for rovers like NASA’s new Perseverance to operate on the Red Planet;
- And a network of high-bay garage spaces will support Ford’s effort to bring autonomous vehicles and other advanced vehicle technologies to market.
By combining efforts from 10 different university programs, as well as Ford’s own robotics efforts, the goal is to come up with “creative collisions” that can spur new breakthroughs, said Washington.
And the presence of the automaker should mean “the way of working” on academic research “is going to change profoundly,” added Professor Jesse Grizzle, the director of Ford’s Robotics Institute.
Bringing industry and academia together
Grizzle noted the robots his staff and students develop now are prone to frequent breakdowns. He hopes Ford can help improve reliability, among other things. That would be particularly crucial for the development of new, robot-assisted prosthetic devices for the disabled.
Ford is by no means the only automaker interested in robotic technology. Toyota and Honda, in fact, have large operations developing robotic systems that can be used on assembly lines, in homes and as ways to provide more mobility for the disabled. The close-knit structure of the Ford-Michigan program is what’s most unusual.
“I see the project as creating a nexus” for both developing and commercializing advanced robotic technologies, said Alec D. Gallimore, U-M’s Dean of Engineering. And it could become a role model for future projects, Gallimore added. “I predict in next few years (this will) set the tone for future collaborations … for academia at large.”