“Our state is truly at the forefront of developments in robotics,” said U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell. “It’s because of the dedication of the University of Michigan, the National Center for Manufacturing Sciences (NCMS) and others that we’re able to lead the way.
“Robotics is transforming the way we live,” she added.
Michigan Engineering and NCMS jointly organize the event, which was sponsored this year by Ford. On display were bomb-squad bots, drones, watercraft, a Segway equipped for mapping its environment, a collision-avoiding wheelchair and a world-class walking robot, among others. Participants could make their own bristlebots, watch drone operators demonstrate daredevil barrel rolls in a corner secured with netting, and tour Mcity—U-M’s one-of-a-kind simulated city for testing driverless vehicles.
Representatives from industry, academia and government attended. This year also saw an uptick in FIRST Robotics teams from area high schools. FIRST is an international competition in which students build their own robots.
“I always say, our young people are 25 percent of the population and 100 percent of our future,” Dingell said. “And when I meet you today, I can see that it’s in good hands.”
Moderator and event co-organizer Phil Callihan, of the National Center for Manufacturing Sciences, emphasized that the school-aged members of the audience won’t have to look far for opportunities.
“These are all activities that are happening here in Michigan, not in California,” he said.
Chris Brewer, chief engineer of autonomous vehicles at Ford, gave opening remarks.
“This is the most exciting time we’ve had in the auto business since Ford automated the assembly line,” Brewer said. “We’re on the cusp of bringing an automated or automonous vehicle to the masses in my lifetime.”
In one of the keynote addresses, Wolfram Burgard, a professor for computer science at the University of Freiburg in Germany, inspired with a talk featuring his robot that walked the two miles from the University of Freiburg’s engineering building to the city center. It navigated busy sidewalks and junctions and avoided the tiny canals that run through the streets.
In the afternoon, student teams participated in the RoboFest competition, put on by Lawrence Technological University. The exhibition competition included a robot that performed thermal sensing, a robot butler, and concepts for robotic zookeepers and an automated city. Other RoboFest teams went head-to-head in two rounds of RoboGolf, shooting golf balls into goals.
Brent Gillespie, an associate professor of mechanical engineering, prepared a station for making “bristlebots” out of toothbrush heads and small motors. These were a huge hit, and he ran out within twenty minutes, but the maker students carried on creating structures from the toothbrush handles and hot glue gun. One of the goals of the event is to inspire the next generation of roboticists.
Luke DeVault, a member of the Advanced Technology Academy FIRST Robotics team, explained that his was one of many teams building their bot at the Michigan Engineering Zone in Detroit, where U-M students and staff serve as mentors. “The advice is the best part, besides the machine shop,” he said.
The day closed with an awards ceremony announcing the young winners of the RoboFest competitions, with the top teams taking home medals, trophies and exhilarated grins.
Robotics Day brings together much of the cutting edge robotics research happening at U-M, where more than 40 faculty members from at least six engineering departments, kinesiology and the medical school are working in the field. They’re making prosthetic limbs that could one day be controlled by the brain; spacecraft to study the solar system and the Earth; autonomous submarines that can map the ocean floor or inspect Navy ship hulls for dangerous mines; as well as a host of walking machines inspired by insects, crabs and humans that have the potential to eventually assist search or rescue tasks.
And the university and college are poised for more growth. Plans are underway for a $54 million robotics center on North Campus.
Robotic technology is going to allow us to have fewer auto accidents, fewer mistakes in manufacturing, an increase in the average wage and a reduction in energy use, said Rick Jarman, president and CEO of NCMS.
“This all starts with days like today and Michigan has a huge role to play,” he said.