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Updated 12:15 PM September 2, 2008
 

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U-M nurtures robotics industry in southeast Michigan

The robotics industry is poised to expand in southeast Michigan and the College of Engineering (CoE) 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. 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'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 also will 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 for the first time this fall.

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

Since the Army started moving its robotics activities north in 2005, several robotics firms are interested in Michigan, including iRobot and FosterMiller. 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. FosterMiller 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.

CoE 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 says.

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

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

U-M researchers working to advance these technologies include mechanical engineering professors Galip Ulsoy and Huei Peng; Jessy Grizzle, professor of electrical engineering and computer science; and Ryan Eustice, assistant professor of naval architecture and marine engineering. Ulsoy is the William Clay Ford Professor of Manufacturing and also the director of the new ground robotics center.

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