Here's what's happening inside the nets at the University of Michigan's new drone lab


The University is of Michigan is hoping that its new outdoor drone facility that opened March 28 will foster a collaborative environment for students to experiment with aerial drone technology. And in some of the early experiments, the drones themselves will be cooperating.

The 9,600-square-foot, four-story structure, named M-Air, is entirely enclosed with netting and includes lights for night flight, as well as a pavilion and a control center. The facility also has built-in network connection, according to Ella Atkins, a Michigan professor of aerospace engineering, and the pavilion can hold up to 25 flyers at a time.

The drone lab, built by the College of Engineering, will be critical to a multitude of research projects within the university, Atkins said. Her classes will use the complex to test cooperation between multiple drones, and she said the facility is a great place to experiment with any sort of interaction between small drones.

“For example,” Atkins told EdScoop, “if you have a manipulator mounted to the bottom of a drone that has some physical task, that would be done in a local area. So you can set up a fixture [in the facility] and have the drone fly near and interact with the fixture, but still have the drone remain subject to the same lighting, weather and atmospheric conditions that would be present in any environment.”

The weather in Ann Arbor — where the University of Michigan’s campus is located — can be unpredictable, so Atkins is excited about the potential for experimenting in adverse conditions that wouldn’t be possible inside a traditional lab or classroom. The $800,000 facility also has $200,000 worth of sensors and data-collection instruments inside to accommodate for a variety of tests.

In addition to manipulating fixtures, Atkins is planning some experiments this summer that will see multiple drones carrying a common tethered payload, and her colleague Dimitrios Zekkos is leading a civil engineering class investigating drone surveying and deploying sensors, collecting data for use of the same technology in natural disaster areas.

Atkins and university officials are also excited about the prospect of a more simplified and safe testing environment for drone research on campus. Previously, flights had to be conducted indoors or at an Academy of Model Aeronautics field, Atkins said, placing restraints on research. Now, all flights can be done within a 30-second walk of most students who conduct research on campus.

The university is also interested in connecting with industry to get the most out of the facility. Atkins says that she can envision a symbiotic relationship between private partners and university researchers to advance technology and provide opportunities for students to get hands-on experience.

“Any students at the University of Michigan who have projects [can use the facility], and we also plan to engage in outreach in K-12 institutions and the community,”