U-M in Ann Arbor Opens M-Air, an Autonomous Aerial Vehicle Outdoor Lab


The University of Michigan in Ann Arbor Thursday announced an outdoor fly lab for testing autonomous aerial vehicles is open for use at the College of Engineering.

“I believe M-Air will rapidly become an incubator for new aerial vehicle concepts,” says 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.

“We also can begin to better understand operational risks associated with real-world outdoor flights with no real risk to people or other aircraft outside the net.”

M-Air is a, $800,000 netted, four-story complex next to the site where the Ford Motor Co. robotics building is slated to open in late 2019. The complex includes 9,600 gross square feet of space and a pavilion for up to 25 users.

Flights at M-Air are considered indoor flights and won’t have to go through U-M’s outdoor drone flight approval process.

Drones have a host of applications, including delivering packages, providing commercial transportation and national security, scouting disaster sites, and inspecting infrastructure. Dimitrios Zekkos, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering, works on a team that uses specialized drones to survey and 3-D map areas stricken by natural disasters.

“Much of what we see at the surface — whether it is a failure of a bridge, a landslide, or a structural collapse — may be caused by failure at depth. The problem is that some of these areas, immediately after the event, are unsafe and sometimes impossible to reach,” says Zekkos, who surveyed Nepal in 2016 after a major earthquake. “This work can inform risk assessment studies, urban planning, and other critical decisions and processes. It could also lead to better design procedures and, eventually, safer structures.”

Atkins is developing roofing robots that can ferry shingles and eventually position and install them. She will test her robot at M-Air.

M-Air is on North Campus and down the road from U-M’s Mcity Test Facility, a test track for autonomous and connected vehicles. The college is also home to the Marine Hydrodynamics Lab, which houses a 360-foot-long indoor pool for testing robotic and conventional watercraft, while the university’s Space Physics Research lab develops and tests robotic spacecraft.

M-Air was funded by Michigan Engineering and the U-M Office of Research.

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