M-Air drone lab opens with eyes on the skies

Sarah Rahal
The Detroit News

Ann Arbor — The University of Michigan College of Engineering has lift-off.

On Wednesday, it celebrated the grand opening of M-Air, an outdoor drone flying lab on north campus.

Matthew Romano, 22, a first-year Ph.D. robotics student, flies his drone inside the new M-Air netted autonomous aerial vehicle outdoor lab Wednesday morning.

The 9,600-square-foot, netted complex sits in between the aerospace research building and the soon-to-be Ford Motor Co. Robotics Building, which is to open in 2020.

The facility is 50-feet high with a pavilion for up to 25 flyers at a time.

Ella Atkins, a professor of aerospace engineering, said the outdoor facility will allow researchers and students to push algorithms to the limit while staying safe.

“With the addition, we can pursue research projects with all of the natural elements and without worrying about the drones flying away and us losing control,” Atkins said. “It will allow us and our students to explore all the things we dream of doing with autonomous aerial vehicles.”

Prashin Sharma, 31, a Ph.D Robotics student, prepares to fly his drone inside the new M-Air netted autonomous aerial vehicle outdoor lab Wednesday.

The college and UM’s Office of Research spent $800,000 on the four-story complex and is expecting to spend another $200,000 equipping it with sensors and high-definition cameras to collect data.

Atkins said they are exploring opportunities with large and small drones. She said large ones can be used for commercial transport and national security while small drones will be used to explore disaster sites, inspect infrastructure and perform jobs too dangerous for humans.

“Especially with small drones, we want to research ways to surveil and collect data, possibly to forecast weather and earthquakes,” Atkins said. “There’s also potential to use drones to collect data from disaster sites using their cameras and capabilities to transport relief items when roads are inaccessible.”

They plan to set up small-scale fake demonstrations of these in the lab this year for about 30 freshman and graduate students to study year-round.

Jessy Grizzle, director of Michigan Robotics, said M-Air was necessary because students weren’t able to fly due to safety concerns about interference with hospital helicopters and aircraft from Willow Run Airport.

“Now flights are considered indoors, and we don’t need to go through any typical outdoor flight approval process,” Grizzle said. “We could have had this indoors, but we would have been restricted by scale and students wouldn’t get the advantage of working with wind, rain and snow. This is bigger than any laboratory we could’ve had.”

Students from the Michigan Autonomous Aerial Vehicle team have been building flying tech and practicing at Willow Run Airport for the last eight years. They are thrilled to have a designated space on campus.

“We will never have to worry that there will be a plane parked in our hanger again,” said Ryan Wunderly, 19, of Kalamazoo, who is a sophomore and team president. “It’s a large space with more than we could afford on our own, and it’s great to have a community around you.”

Drones fly inside the new M-Air netted autonomous aerial vehicle outdoor lab Wednesday.

The team has built an aircraft they call “Pagoda” for the International Aerial Robotics Competition in August, which they'll use to herd a group of Roombas.

They include Ph.D. robotic students such as Mia Stevens, 26, who is excited to use the lab to further her research in geofencing with a drone.

“It’s like an invisible fence for your dog but instead for your drone,” said Stevens, a fourth-year from upstate New York. “There are a lot of GPS challenges when working indoors and working outdoors will also help with classes.”

Grizzle said the facility was intended for research, but he hopes the community will have some recreational fun, too.

“On Tuesday nights, we plan to set up bleachers and have drone racing and some other fun park-like activities,” he said.