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Ford expands robotics research with $75 million U-M facility

Ford Motor Company will be embedding 100 of its researchers and engineers in a new $75 million robotics and mobility facility on the University of Michigan’s Ann Arbor campus.

This is not the first collaboration between the automaker and the university. Ford is UM’s single largest corporate donor and the two entities have previously teamed up to open the UM Ford Center for Autonomous Vehicles. But this is the first time Ford is co-locating part of its team on a university campus.

Ford clarified to TechCrunch that the arrangement is not an incubator, but “an extension of our global research and advanced engineering network.”

The arrangement will give Ford space to conduct robotics research and access to students – and vice versa – from the top floor of the four-floor, 134,000 square-foot building. Ford will also have access to the research labs located throughout the rest of the building, including four high-bay garage spaces to test autonomous vehicles and a walking robots laboratory.

Nearby, Ford will be able to drive its cars at the Mcity Test Facility, a simulated Main Street for testing vehicles in real-world environments. Ford was the first automaker to test an autonomous vehicle at Mcity in 2015.

The automaker’s research areas will not be limited to autonomous driving tech.

“The whole field of robotics has applications beyond the vehicle, that’s very clear to us,” Ford CTO Ken Washington said Tuesday. “We made the decision quite some time ago that we wanted to create a capability in robotics to apply to our vehicles, but also to have a broader potential application base, including manufacturing, including rethinking how we’re showing up in the market with our commercial vehicles, and possibly other solutions, like aerial robotics.”

In January of 2020, Agility Robotics’ first order came from Ford, for the Digit – a humanoid robot equipped with sensors to work in human spaces. Ford will be experimenting with the Digit in the new building as well as Boston Dynamics’ infamous Spot, the four-legged robot that can navigate unpredictable terrain. Ford will be conducting experiments with both these robot models at the new UM facility.

The general robotics and engineering research will be led by Mario Santillo, and Tony Lockwood, Ford’s technical manager in AV Research, will lead on the AV side.

Ford and UM as part of the arrangement will be developing an inclusive curriculum “to open more opportunities for underserved students,” according to a statement. Alec Gallimore, the Dean of Engineering at UM, said the new Robotics Institute aims to push the field to be more equity-centered. To that end, students from historically black schools in Atlanta, Georgia will be able to enroll remotely in a Robotics 101 course, which doesn’t require calculus, to “level the playing field” for students from high schools that did not offer advanced courses.