The University of Michigan is home to a new research facility dedicated to testing drones. The facility might be the first of its kind. M-Air building. (All images via University of Michigan)
Autonomous vehicles are the rave this year. On the one hand, the world is impatiently waiting for autonomous cars to be available for sale. On the other hand, there is another type of vehicle, the autonomous aircraft, which might not be of interest for most individuals but will change the way certain organizations and industry operate. While the autonomous cars get tested easily, flying vehicles are subject to more scrutiny, for safety reasons. The University of Michigan solved that issue with the construction of a new facility dedicated to testing drones and any related vehicles.
Named M-Air, the facility allows researchers and students to freely deepen their understanding of drones and ways to improve them. Professor Ella Atkins imagines that M-Air will become the womb that births many upcoming projects in aerospace engineering. Students will have a chance to study seriously various parameters of drones’ flight in real time without endangering civilians. With its four-story height (50-feet high) and 9,600 gross square feet, M-Air was born thanks to the monetary support of the university’s research office and cost a total of eight hundred thousand dollars. Users of the facility will have a pavilion that can host about 25 people for all suitable activities. Although astounding, M-Air stands next to Mcity Test Facility, another state-of-the-art facility on the university’s campus. Mcity is a “fake” city that will also serve for testing autonomous vehicles in urban areas.
But, the University of Michigan didn’t just start exploring engineering. The institution harbors a marine hydrodynamics lab with a constructed lake to experiment with robotics and regular watercraft. In addition, U of M is also exploring space and designed a lab for space physics research, which focuses on robot-spacecraft, which could travel to study the planets of the solar system. And, M-Air will be in an even better company in 2019 when Ford Motors opens its robotics center.
Since M-Air is recreating real-time flight conditions for the drones, the building must include some sort of protective measures to prevent possible collision with other aircraft like the hospital’s helicopters. Hence, the nets surrounding the building. With that feature, M-Air got approved by the university authorities without going through the usual approval process for outdoor drone flight because all tests conducted inside M-Air are considered indoors.
Given all the thoughts that went into designing M-Air, it is no surprise that Jack Hu, U of M’s vice president of research sees it as the ultimate tool to encourage and support innovation among students and teachers. Some faculty members such as the Dean of engineering Alec Gallimore even claim that the University of Michigan has the only engineering school with such avant-garde robotics infrastructures. Now, what inspired the building of M-Air?
Most people view drones as package delivery vehicles, but drones are useful in a variety of setting: the big one can secure an area or conduct other revenue-generating activities while the tiny ones can gather information and accomplish tasks in places inaccessible to humans. For example, Dimitrios Zekkos, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering of the University of Michigan, is part of a team of researchers who use special drones to scan areas affected by natural disasters and assess the level of damages done and safety for the rescue team. Recently, the team showed how a drone could deposit a 15-pound weight on the ground and use detectors to collect feedback of the weight’s shock with the ground. Zekkos explained that this use of drone could serve to protect the rescue team after a natural disaster by informing them of the zones that are unsafe to explore. The risk assessing skill of drones can also be used in planning or any major decision process to ensure the safety of users. And, that is where M-Air comes in the picture. If researchers can test drones in any condition and on any task, they will develop better drones and expand the tasks the vehicles can be used for. Professor Atkins imagined large autonomous aircrafts building roofs and doing repairs on a house.
M-Air promises to be an oasis for all ideas like Atkins’ or Zekkos.'
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