March 17, 2021 | auto

Ford partners with U-M on robotics research, new building


Digit marches on two legs across the floor of the University of Michigan’s Ford Motor Co. Robotics Building, while Mini-Cheetah — staccato-like — does the same on four and the yellow-legged Cassie steps deliberately side-to-side.
A grand opening was held Tuesday for the four-story, $75 million, 134,000-square-foot (11,429-square-meter) complex. Three floors house classrooms and research labs for robots that fly, walk, roll and augment the human body.
On the top floor are Ford researchers and engineers and the automaker’s first robotics and mobility research lab on a university campus.
Together, they will work to develop robots and roboticists that help make lives better, keep people safer and build a more equitable society, the school and automaker announced Tuesday.
“As we all drive and use our vehicles and go about our day-to-day lives, I’m sure all of us have moments in our day where we could use a little help or a little assistance,” said Ken Washington, Ford’s chief technology officer.
“We are going to be working on drone technology, walking robots, roving robots, all types of robots in this facility and the ways in which they can make people’s lives better,” Washington added. “And we’ll do it in a way that addresses questions and fears around safety and security. The more people see how these robots can interact with society and interact with humans, the more comfortable they’ll get with them.”
The building on the university’s Ann Arbor campus brings together researchers from 23 buildings and 10 programs into one space. Those working on two-legged disaster response robots can test them on a 30-mph (48-kph) treadmill studded with obstacles or on a stair-stepped “robot playground” designed with the help of artificial intelligence.
Biomedical engineers are looking at developing lighter, more stable prosthetic legs. Ford engineers are exploring how upright Digit robots can work in human spaces.
Dearborn, Michigan-based Ford and other automakers are investing billions of dollars in autonomous vehicles. and robotics is expected to play a major role in their development. Ford announced in February that it was autonomous vehicle investment to $7 billion, from sensing systems to specific research into applications such as Digit, a spokesman said.
In November, Ford revealed plans to transform a long-vacant Detroit book warehouse into a hub for automobile innovation.

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