U-M to Build M-Air Outdoor Fly Lab for Drone Testing


The University of Michigan’s College of Engineering in Ann Arbor today announced it will build an outdoor fly lab to test autonomous aerial vehicles. M-Air will be a netted, four-story complex located next to the site of Ford Motor Co.’s robotics building, which will open in late 2019.

Construction of the $800,000 M-Air facility is slated to begin this month and is expected to be completed by the end of the year.

Currently, the Federal Aviation Administration permits researchers to fly drones outside at a low altitude, so long as the operator can see the aircraft and immediately ground it during an emergency.

Outdoor drone flights on U-M’s Ann Arbor campus must go through a formal university approval process due to safety concerns and interference with hospital helicopters and other aircrafts. Flights in M-Air will be considered indoors and won’t require a condition of approval.

“M-Air will allow us to push the edge of our algorithms and equipment in a safe way, where the worst that can happen is it falls from the sky,” says Ella Atkins, U-M 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.”

Atkins adds that autonomous aerial vehicles have a host of applications, ranging from commercial transport to national security. Small drones can survey disaster sites, inspect infrastructure including wind turbines and bridges, gather environmental and atmospheric data, and deliver packages.

“The FAA regulations don’t guarantee safety,” she says. “They’re intended for responsible, experienced pilots, and on more tested systems. Our students aren’t experienced pilots. They, and our faculty members, are building new hardware that’s not necessarily going to work the first, second, third, or even the fourth time.”

M-Air will be located near a complementary indoor space. Next door, Ford’s robotics building will provide a three-story fly zone where drones can perch on walls or ceilings and interact with the environment. Together, the labs will support a full spectrum of experiments with one or several drones, and researchers will be able to test unique control and sensing schemes, cooperative control, human-robot interaction, and novel missions.

The fly lab will be adjacent to U-M’s MCity test facility, a simulated urban and suburban environment where academic and industry researcher test autonomous and connect cars and trucks. The College of Engineering is also home to the Marine Hydrodynamics Lab, which features a 360-foot-long indoor body of water for testing robotic and conventional watercrafts.

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