Outdoor drone complex will be site of safe flight testing


An outdoor fly lab for testing autonomous aerial vehicles is coming to the University of Michigan’s College of Engineering this fall, adding to the university’s spate of advanced robotics facilities.

M-Air will be a netted, four-story complex situated next to where the Ford Motor Co. Robotics Building will open in late 2019. Construction of the $800,000 M-Air is expected to begin in August and be complete by the end of the year.

“M-Air will allow us to push the edge of our algorithms and equipment in a safe way, where the worst that can happen is it falls from the sky,” said Ella Atkins, professor of aerospace engineering. “With this facility, we can pursue aggressive educational and research flight projects that involve high risk of fly-away or loss-of-control — and in realistic wind, lighting and sensor conditions.”

Autonomous aerial vehicles have a host of applications, researchers say. Large ones can be used for commercial transport and national security. Small drones could survey disaster sites, inspect infrastructure like bridges and wind turbines, gather environmental and atmospheric data, and deliver packages, for example. Package delivery goes beyond Amazon orders.

“You could travel over a disaster site, or a farm,” Atkins said. “Small drones can go places that are very hard or dangerous to get to, and fairly quickly because they don’t need roads.”

A rendering of the eastward-looking view of M-Air, which will be located at the corner of Hayward Street and Draper Road on North Campus. (Drawing courtesy of Harley Ellis Devereaux)

Currently, the Federal Aviation Administration allows researchers to fly drones outside at low altitude as long as the operator can see the aircraft and immediately ground it in an emergency.

Outdoor drone flights on U-M’s Ann Arbor campus must go through a formal university approval process due to safety concerns about interference with hospital helicopters and other aircraft. Flights in M-Air will be considered indoors and won’t require this level of approval.

“The FAA regulations don’t guarantee safety,” Atkins said. “They’re intended for responsible, experienced pilots, and on more tested systems. 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.”

Researchers often use tethers to try out their newest technologies, but that can be limiting. Without a net or a tether, a cutting-edge prototype could hit a car or a person.

“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,” said S. Jack Hu, vice president for research and the J. Reid and Polly Anderson Professor of Manufacturing.

M-Air will be located near a complementary indoor space. Next door, the Ford Motor Co. Robotics Building will hold a three-story fly zone where drones can perch on walls or ceilings and interact with the environment. Together, the labs allow for a full spectrum of experiments with one or several drones. Researchers will be able to test unique control and sensing schemes, cooperative control, human-robot interaction, and novel missions, Atkins said.

“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,” said Alec Gallimore, the Robert J. Vlasic Dean of Engineering and a professor of aerospace engineering. “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.”

The outdoor fly lab will be down the road from U-M’s one-of-a-kind Mcity Test Facility, a simulated urban and suburban environment where academic and industry researchers test autonomous and connected cars and trucks. And the college is home to the Marine Hydrodynamics Lab, which houses a 360-foot-long indoor body of water for testing robotic and conventional watercraft.

M-Air is funded by CoE and the Office of Research. With 9,600 gross square feet, M-Air will have an 80-by-120 footprint, and it will stand 50 feet high at the northwest corner of Hayward Street and Draper Road. A pavilion for up to 25 people will comfortably host users. The M-Air floor will be grass, and its walls black polyester netting held in place with structural steel poles. Adjustable lighting will make it useable in the evening.

“From an aerial robotics education perspective, this facility is enabling the notion of, ‘If you can imagine it, you can try it out,'” Atkins said. “My vision is get a lawn chair and sit out there as much as possible.”


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