University of Michigan’s outdoor drone lab takes flight

March 28, 2018
Matthew Romano, 1st year PhD Robotics student flies his drone inside the new M-Air netted autonomous aerial vehicle outdoor lab at the University of Michigan on Wednesday, March 28, 2018, in Ann Arbor, Mich. The facility can test drones in just about any kind of weather. (Clarence Tabb Jr./Detroit News via AP)

ANN ARBOR, Mich. (AP) — A dedicated outdoor space for testing autonomous aerial vehicles has taken flight at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

Researchers hosted a “demo day” on Wednesday, showing off the $800,000 four-story netted complex that’s known as “M-Air.”

The 50-foot-high, 9,600-square-foot facility “allows the students to come out and fly anything that fits in the net,” said aerospace engineering professor Ella Atkins.

Just three weeks old, M-Air features a pavilion with room for up to 25 people. The ground inside the netting is dirt, but it eventually will be grass. Adjustable lighting will make M-Air usable in the evening.

And, as Michigan Robotics director Jessy Grizzle points out, it can be used in just about any kind of weather.

“We’ll be able to test drones in the wind and the rain and the snow and the sleet and the hail and the gloomy night,” he said.

Outdoor drone flights on the campus are required to go through a formal university approval process due to safety concerns about interference with hospital helicopters and other aircraft. But flights inside the M-Air space are considered indoors and don’t require that level of approval.

“It really is a good idea for universities to allow both education and research to happen without risk to the people nearby,” Atkins said.

Autonomous aerial vehicles can be used in many ways, which include surveying disaster sites, inspecting bridges and wind turbines, gathering environmental and atmospheric data, and delivering packages, according to researchers.

Michigan is not the only university in the U.S. with an outdoor drone testing facility, but it is in keeping with the school’s desire to stay on the cutting edge of technology.

M-Air is not far from Mcity, a simulated urban and suburban environment where academic and industry researchers test autonomous and connected vehicles. The university also is home to the Marine Hydrodynamics Lab, which houses a 360-foot-long indoor body of water used for testing robotic and conventional watercraft, and its Space Physics Research lab develops and tests robotics spacecraft.

M-Air is funded by Michigan Engineering and the U-M Office of Research.