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U-M Nurtures Robotics Industry in Southeast Michigan
By Robotics Trends Staff - Filed Sep 12, 2008
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Southern Michigan attracts new Ground Robotics Research Center and looks to leverage automotive expertise as the area expands into military ground robotics and intelligent transportation.

The robotics industry is poised to expand in southeast Michigan and the University of Michigan College of Engineering is helping to make that happen with a new research center, four new faculty members, a master’s degree program and 5,000 square feet of additional lab space.

The U.S. Army has moved its ground robotics activities from Alabama to Detroit Arsenal in Warren, Mich. The area’s automotive presence makes this a natural fit, experts say. Robotic systems that sense a vehicle’s surroundings and react accordingly are the next frontier in auto safety. The military uses robots for transporting cargo, surveillance, unmanned defense, de-activating roadside bombs, rescuing soldiers and more.

“Michigan is more and more going to be at the center of robotics efforts,” Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) said at the University’s Robotics and Autonomous Systems Conference in August. “We put the world on wheels a century ago. We’re going to keep the world making advances when it comes to safety, reducing workload and helping our troops complete their missions.”

In July, the University of Michigan’s Ground Robotics Research Center opened, with $2 million in projects funded by the U.S. Army’s Tank Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center (TARDEC). TARDEC gave another $2 million to seven other universities in the state and U-M will collaborate with these institutions and industry partners.

The center will research all aspects of ground robotics, including their design, propulsion, navigation and reliability. It will also look at how robots and humans interact and seek ways to improve safety.

Four faculty members have been hired in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science.

A new Master of Engineering degree in unmanned ground vehicles and robotics is offered this fall for the first time.

In addition to 5,000 square feet of new robotics lab space, the college will provide space for industry offices on campus in effort to foster collaboration.

Since the Army started moving its robotics activities north in 2005, several robotics firms are interested in Michigan, including iRobot and Foster-Miller. iRobot developed the Roomba robotic vacuum cleaner and also manufactures military robots such as the PackBot, 1,700 of which are deployed in Iraq. The company is making plans to open an office in the area. Foster-Miller is a military defense security company that opened a small office in Warren within the past year and has plans to expand its engineering workforce.

The College of Engineering is prepared to help, says Dave Munson, the Robert J. Vlasic Dean of Engineering.

“We intend to work with our partners to build on our heritage of collaborative industry, university, and government research to develop next-generation engineering systems—and next-generation engineers—to create new competitive advantages for the State of Michigan and the U. S. in the 21st- century global economy,” Munson said.

U-M researchers are already working on relevant research. Several have grants from Ford Motor Company, for example, to develop safety technologies for cars and trucks. Edward Krause, external alliances manager at Ford, explained where robotics overlaps with the auto industry.

Up to this point, vehicle safety innovations have been what he called passive—seat belts, air bags, vehicle crumple zones. These features protect a person in an accident.

“But at some point, passive safety reaches its limit, and physics is physics,” Krause said. “Now, opportunities exist in active safety, or accident avoidance. With lasers, sensors and radar, the vehicle will monitor its own environment 360 degrees and assess threats, just like a robot.”

Vehicles will one day be able to determine whether an item in the path is a shopping bag (which would be safe to hit), or a person, for example.

“Vehicles very soon will cease to function as individuals. They will be nodes on a network. Wouldn’t it be nice if a vehicle up ahead sent you a message that it hit traffic, or a patch of ice?” Krause said.

U-M researchers working to advance these technologies include Mechanical Engineering professors Galip Ulsoy and Huei Peng; Electrical Engineering and Computer Science professor Jessy Grizzle and Naval Architecture and Marine Engineering assistant professor Ryan Eustice. Ulsoy is the William Clay Ford Professor of Manufacturing and also the director of the new ground robotics center.

Professors here are also involved in the military applications of robotics. Mechanical Engineering research professor Johann Borenstein has developed a more accurate wearable tracking device for soldiers or firefighters. It works with accelerometers that record speed and motion. Mechanical Engineering assistant professor Kenn Oldham has plans for robot scorpions that could respond to disasters, crawling through wreckage to find survivors.

Michigan Engineering
The University of Michigan College of Engineering is ranked among the top engineering schools in the country. At more than $130 million annually, its engineering research budget is one of largest of any public university. Michigan Engineering is home to 11 academic departments and a National Science Foundation Engineering Research Center. The college plays a leading role in the Michigan Memorial Phoenix Energy Institute and hosts the world class Lurie Nanofabrication Facility. Michigan Engineering’s premier scholarship, international scale and multidisciplinary scope combine to create The Michigan Difference. Find out more at

Nicole Casal Moore
P: (734) 647-1838

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