University of Michigan creating outdoor complex for safe drone testing


The University of Michigan’s School of Engineering is building a first-of-its-kind outdoor fly lab designed to give students and professors a large, safely netted environment for testing cutting-edge autonomous aerial vehicles, or drones.

Construction of the $800,000 complex, called M-Air, is expected to be complete by the end of the year, Michigan officials said.

“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, in an official statement. “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.”

The Federal Aviation Administration currently lets researchers fly drones outside at low altitudes as long as the operator can see the aircraft and immediately ground it in an emergency. Outdoor flights on Michigan’s Ann Arbor campus have 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 that level of approval.

Testing drones in a safe environment is critical to the advancement of drone research and education, Michigan officials said.

“The FAA regulations don’t guarantee safety,” Atkins said. “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.”

Other universities have created dedicated drone-research facilities where testing is done in an open-air environment. For example, the University of Maryland in 2013 opened a site at the Naval Air Station Patuxent River in southern Maryland, managed by the university’s Clark School of Engineering.

But Michigan officials say the 10,000-square-foot, 50-foot-high M-Air facility will be part of the safest and most comprehensive drone-testing complex in the nation. The four-story facility will sit cheek-by-jowl with the new Ford Motor Company Robotics Building, scheduled to open in late 2019.

The Ford robotics building will hold a three-story, indoor fly zone where drones can perch on walls or ceilings and interact with the environment. Together, the labs allow for a full spectrum of experiments with one or several drones. Researchers will be able to test unique control and sensing schemes, cooperative control, human-robot interaction and novel missions, officials said.

“When M-Air opens, Michigan Engineering will be the only engineering school in the country — perhaps in the world — with access to cutting-edge robotic test facilities for air, sea and land,” said Alec Gallimore, dean of the school and a professor of aerospace engineering. “This is a key piece in our long-term plan to give our faculty and students best-in-class resources as they work to solve society’s greatest challenges and most exciting opportunities.”

M-Air is funded by Michigan Engineering and the U-M Office of Research. A pavilion for up to 25 people will 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.

“From an aerial robotics education perspective, this facility is enabling the notion of, ‘If you can imagine it, you can try it out,'” Atkins said.