M-Air Drone Testing Complex Coming to University of Michigan

An outdoor flight test lab for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) is arriving at the University of Michigan’s (U-M) College of Engineering this fall, the university has announced.

Dubbed M-Air, the facility will be a netted, four-story complex situated next to the site at which the Ford Motor Co. 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,” says Ella Atkins, professor of aerospace engineering, in a university press release. “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.”

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; however, flights in M-Air will be considered indoors and won’t require this level of approval, the university explains.

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

Next door, the Ford Motor Co. Robotics Building will hold a three-story 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 UAVs, according to U-M.

“We’re giving our students and faculty the most comprehensive, safe testing facilities possible for these vehicles, which hold great promise for a wide range of applications,” states S. Jack Hu, U-M’s vice president for research and the J. Reid and Polly Anderson Professor of Manufacturing in the Department of Mechanical Engineering.

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 will stand 50 feet high at the northwest corner of Hayward Street and Draper Road. In addition, a pavilion for up to 25 people will host users. The M-Air floor will be grass, and its walls will comprise black polyester netting held in place with structural steel poles. Adjustable lighting will also make it usable in the evening, U-M notes.

The outdoor fly lab will also be down the road from U-M’s Mcity Test Facility, a simulated urban and suburban environment at which academic and industry researchers can test autonomous and connected cars and trucks.

Photo courtesy of architect and engineering firm Harley Ellis Devereaux


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