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Take a look inside University of Michigan’s new Ford Motor Co. robotics complex

Facility houses research labs, classrooms, makerspaces and offices

An aerial view of the Ford Robotics Building at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Mich. (Levi Hutmacher/University of Michigan Engineering, Communications and Marketing)

ANN ARBOR – University of Michigan and Ford Motor Co. are opening a state-of-the-art facility dedicated to developing robots and roboticists.

The facility aims to improve people’s lives and keep them safe with its research and to promote a more equitable society.

The Ford Motor Company Robotics Building is on U-M’s North Campus. The $75 million complex spans 134,000 square feet and is the new hub of U-M’s Robotics Institute. The first three floors house classrooms, makerspaces, offices and custom research labs to develop robots that walk, roll, fly and augment the human body.

The building’s fourth floor holds a robotics and mobility research lab for Ford -- the first on any university campus, as well as 100 Ford engineers and researchers.

“To me, this new building brings to life a collaborative, interdisciplinary community that I’m proud to host at Michigan Engineering. Our Robotics Institute upholds an explicitly inclusive climate and a culture that believes in the field’s potential to serve as an enabler for all, especially those who have previously been underserved,” professor of aerospace engineering Alec D. Gallimore said in a news release.

“In this way, we aim to push the robotics field, and engineering more broadly, to become equity-centered—intentionally closing, rather than unintentionally expanding, societal gaps.”

The new building also brings together ten Top 10 programs and researchers from 23 different U-M buildings.

The facility has a “robot playground” and a treadmill augmented with obstacles designed to test two-legged disaster response robots. Special “earthquake platforms” will be available to biomedical engineers to help them develop more stabilized and lightweight prosthetic legs.

To explore a 3D model of the building, click here.

Ford engineers will be utilizing the complex to test their upright Digit robots. Autonomous vehicles will be taken down the road for testing using robotic computer simulations at another one of the university’s world-class facilities, Mcity.

A workspace in the Ford Robotics Building at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, MI. The classrooms, work, and lab spaces enable students for both undergraduate and graduate levels. (Joseph Xu/University of Michigan Engineering, Communications and Marketing)

“As Ford continues the most profound transformation in our history with electrification, connectivity and automation, advancing our collaboration with the University of Michigan will help us accelerate superior experiences for our customers while modernizing our business,” chief technology officer of Ford Motor Co. Ken Washington said in a news release.

“We also will broaden our learning through daily exposure to many robotics activities, such as considering how our Digit robots not only technically can master delivering packages from autonomous vehicles but also become valued parts of our neighborhoods.”

Director of the U-M Robotics Institute, engineering professor Jessy Grizzle conducted research and classes for years from his former lab on Beal Ave. The space was small and closed off from the rest of the school, which is why he is most excited about the collaborative nature of the new facility.

“This is a truly dazzling facility full of some of the most advanced research and teaching infrastructure in the world. But what I’m most excited about is the people it will bring together and what they will be able to accomplish collectively,” Grizzle said in a news release.

The atrium of the Ford Robotics Building at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Mich. Classrooms, work, and lab spaces enable students for both undergraduate and graduate levels. (Joseph Xu/University of Michigan Engineering, Communications and Marketing)

The building’s lobby is a large atrium lined with glass-walled labs so passersby and visitors can observe research in real time.

Additionally, U-M and Ford are working to design a more inclusive curriculum in collaboration with two Atlanta-based historically Black institutions: Morehouse and Spelman colleges. Students from these schools can enroll in Robotics 101 remotely -- this hybrid model was proposed long before the pandemic began to increase access to students from lower-resource high schools, including U-M students.

New labs for human-centered robotics include one that tests legged robots, an advanced prosthetics and robotic controls lab, a three-story indoor fly zone to test drones and other autonomous flying vehicles, a lab to test rover and lander concepts that mimics Mars and an artificial intelligence-designed outdoor “robot playground.”

An aerial view of the AI Playground outside of the Ford Robotics Building at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Mich. Robots from various labs are tested on a multitude of terrains and with motion tracker cameras. (Levi Hutmacher/University of Michigan Engineering, Communications and Marketing)

“I don’t know of any building like this in the world,” associate dean for research at Michigan Engineering Eric Michielssen said in a news release. “These state-of-the-art labs are fitted with some of the most advanced scientific instruments.

“Couple that with the fact that they will bring together researchers and students from across campus and beyond, and it’s clear this will be an unbelievable intellectual environment for the development of next-generation robots.”

The facility boasts an outdoor M-Air drone cage and is home to a hydrodynamics lab where researchers can test robotic and conventional watercraft in a 360-foot-long indoor body of water. U-M teams are also developing and testing robotic instruments and spacecraft inside the Space Physics Research Lab.


About the Author:

Meredith has worked for WDIV since August 2017 and was voted one of Washtenaw County's best journalists in 2019 by eCurrent's readers. She covers the community of Ann Arbor and has a Master's degree in International Broadcast Journalism from City University London, UK.