It looks like an outdoor drone flight testing complex is heading to the University of Michigan’s College of Engineering this fall. This addition will add a new dimension to the university’s state of advanced robotics facilities.
M-Air will be a netted, four-story complex situated next to the site where the Ford Motor Company Robotics Building will open in late 2019. Construction of the $800,000 M-Air is expected to begin in August and be complete by the end of the year.
“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,” said 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.”
Currently, the FAA allows researchers to fly drones outside at low altitude as long as the operator can see the aircraft and immediately ground it in an emergency. Outdoor drone flights on U-M’s Ann Arbor campus need to go through a formal university approval process due to safety concerns about interference with hospital helicopters and other aircraft. Flights in M-Air will be considered indoors and won’t require this level of approval.
Researchers often use tethers to try out their newest technologies, but that can be limiting. Without a net or a tether, a cutting-edge prototype could hit a car or a person.
Autonomous aerial vehicles have a host of applications, researchers say. Large ones can be used for commercial transport and national security. Small drones could survey disaster sites, inspect infrastructure like bridges and wind turbines, gather environmental and atmospheric data, and deliver packages, for example. Package delivery goes beyond Amazon orders.
M-Air is funded by Michigan Engineering and the U-M Office of Research. With 9,600 gross square feet, M-Air will have an 80-by-120 footprint, and it will stand 50 feet high at the northwest corner of Hayward Street and Draper Road. A pavilion for up to 25 people will comfortably host users. The M-Air floor will be grass, and its walls black polyester netting held in place with structural steel poles. Adjustable lighting will make it useable in the evening.