Robots are no longer stationary devices welded to the factory floor, encased in cages to keep humans out of their workspaces. Already, robots walk, fly, drive, and swim. They sense their environments and communicate with each other and with humans, and more startling advances are on the way.
In the not-too-distant future we can look forward to prosthetic limbs that link with the human brain to restore function for stroke patients and accident victims. The University of Michigan is leading the way to develop driverless cars that will save tens of thousands of lives every year. Autonomous submarines will map the ocean floor and inspect ships’ hulls for cracks and other dangers. Walking robots will assist humans with search-and-rescue tasks. Interactive robotic devices will enable the elderly to age gracefully and safely within their homes using natural language and fluid gestures.
But a host of difficult and enormously complex problems must be solved before these technologies can be incorporated into everyday life – problems that will require scientific breakthroughs in mobility, manipulation, communication, perception, pattern recognition, and other factors that enable robots to interact with humans and the world. With the number two-ranked robotics program in the U.S., the University of Michigan has dozens of robotics faculty with significant expertise in many of these areas. Particular strengths at U-M include legged locomotion, autonomous driving, rehabilitation robotics, soft manipulation and robot perception.
The 140,000 square-foot robotics building will include a three-story fly zone for autonomous aerial vehicles, an outdoor obstacle course for walking robots, and high-bay garage space for self-driving cars. In a unique collaboration, Ford Motor Company will provide funding to add a fourth floor that it will lease to base Ford engineers in close proximity to Michigan roboticists. In addition to the specialized labs, the $75 million facility will include two large shared lab spaces, a start-up style open collaboration area, offices for 30 faculty members and more than 100 graduate students and postdoctoral researchers, and two classrooms.
What is Michigan Robotics all about?
In three words, we are ALGORITHMS IN MOTION.
We are a team of roboticists and faculty with related expertise who are deeply grounded in the science and fundamentals that produce breakthroughs in robotics, now and in the future. We are fully committed to the balance of theory and practice, where ideas are fleshed out on the whiteboard and in simulations — and then tested in real hardware. Before we share our work with you, our peers and the public, we’ve given it a pretty thorough going over in house. We believe that confronting both theory and hardware is critical in the training of the next generation of leaders.
All of us have seen the sped-up videos of robots picking up objects or walking across uneven terrain — a sure sign that the state of robotics is yet not up to the task of dealing with the real world. A driving force in our work is ROBOTS THAT MOVE AT THE SPEED OF LIFE. We are developing the science and technology for robots that work quickly, safely and efficiently alongside humans, outside the laboratory, “or in the wild,” as we like to say.
The core of autonomy is the ability to handle the unknown — explore previously unmapped environments, dexterously manipulate new objects, and recover from unexpected situations, accidents and malfunctions. We attack the problem from all angles, an approach we call FULL SPECTRUM AUTONOMY.
It is much easier to get the top layer in the autonomy spectrum — whether AI or Deep Learning methods — working on a machine that can already reliably execute a rich set of motion primitives. This lower level of the autonomy spectrum typically relies on modeling, optimization, and feedback control methods, integrated with active perception, be it vision or LIDAR or something else entirely.
But none of this makes much sense unless the machine can carry sufficient energy onboard to complete a task. Michigan Robotics researchers also explore completely different notions of autonomy, optimizing robot hardware for mechanical and electromechanical efficiency. Full spectrum autonomy covers the highest levels of reasoning to the lowest level servo loops, active perception, and robotic mechanisms themselves, with the bottom line being:
BOLDLY SENDING ROBOTS WHERE NO ROBOT HAS GONE BEFORE !
Director, Michigan Robotics
Elmer G. Gilbert Distinguished University Professor
Jerry W. and Carol L. Levin Professor of Engineering
The University of Michigan provides excellence across the broad range of disciplines related to robotics, including computer science, mechanical engineering, artificial intelligence, computer vision, electrical engineering, control systems, psychology, human-robot interaction, sociology, philosophy, ethics, law, biomedical engineering, medicine, business, economics, public policy, and many others.
Of particular prominence is an unusually broad yet strong College of Engineering, with top-ranked programs in traditional robotics areas such as mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, and computer science, but also with specializations such as aerospace engineering, naval architecture and marine engineering, and climate and space sciences. Robotic applications are increasingly important in all of these fields, as well as in medicine, another of Michigan’s world-class programs.
The Midwest is also seen as the new frontier for startups, buoyed by the presence of research powerhouses, lower overhead costs, and a large customer base. A VentureBeat editorial identified Ann Arbor as a hub for innovation in the region.