University of Michigan hopes new drone facility pushes students to great heights

Up until recently, the University of Michigan’s aerospace engineering students could only test their drones in an atrium of one of the university’s buildings, and the flying machines had to remain tethered at all times.

The less-than-ideal conditions have led to the establishment of M-Air, a new outdoor lab that offers a much freer environment for students to test their aerial machines.

M-Air is a simple yet effective solution comprising a netted complex with 9,600 square feet of space that allows students to push their drones to the limit, whether they’re testing new algorithms, mechanisms, sensors, or any other system aimed at advancing drone technology.

The netting plays several important roles. First, it allows students to expose their drones to all kinds of weather conditions, thereby offering a realistic environment for testing. Second, it offers a safe space for testing new designs and systems that could, during their development, result in many flyaway incidents or crashes. Without the netting, the university would have to find a remote location, perhaps far from the university, to test their machines outside. And they’d need permission from the authorities to do so, too.

As you can see in the video above, M-Air also includes a sheltered pavilion that acts as a kind of workshop area where up to 25 students and teachers can prepare their machines for flight as well as tweak existing setups during a flying session.

‘It really lets us push the boundaries’

Student Matthew Romano says M-Air allows them to test a drone system “as much as we want, without fear of it breaking or hurting other people, and it really lets us push the boundaries and allows us to really move quickly on iterating and developing the system and testing our algorithms.”

Drone technology is advancing rapidly, with the machines being developed for use in a wide range of industries. We’ve heard much about plans for package delivery from the likes of Amazon, but there are also plans to use much bigger drones for commercial transport, while others are being developed for search and rescue missions that could one day see them lifting people to safety. They’re also being used to inspect and clean infrastructure like bridges and wind turbines, and can gather environmental and atmospheric data, too.

Dimitrios Zekkos, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Michigan, is helping students develop a specialized drone to survey and 3D-map areas hit by natural disasters. “This work can inform risk assessment studies, urban planning, and other critical decisions and processes. It could also lead to better design procedures and, eventually, safer structures,” Zekkos told the university’s news center.

The university says M-Air is currently the only engineering school in the country with access to cutting-edge robotic test facilities for land, air, sea, and space, operating as it does alongside Mcity for autonomous vehicles, the Marine Hydrodynamics Lab for testing robotic and conventional watercraft, and the Space Physics Research lab that focuses on the development of robotic spacecraft.