Companies and students who desire to test an autonomous vehicle at the University of Michigan have the excellent Mcity reproduced urban environment. But if you desired to test a drone, your options were highly limited — think “at night in a deserted lecture hall.” Not anymore: the school has just opened its M-Air facility, essentially a giant netted playground for UAVs and their humans.
It may not look like much to the unskilled eye, and certainly enclosing a space with a net is considerably less labor-intensive than constructing a complete fake town. But the benefits are unquestionable.
Elevated students at a school like U-M must often come up with plans for drone control systems, new stabilization algorithms, autonomous delivery mechanisms and so on. Testing them is not nearly as easy, though: finding a safe, controlled space and time to do it, getting the necessary approvals and, of course, containing the fallout if anything goes wrong — activities like these could easily engulf a few undergrads.
M-Air serves as a collective space which is easy to use but built from the ground up (or rather, the air down) for secure and easy UAV testing. It is 80 by 120 feet and five stories tall, with a covered area that can clench 25 people. There are lights and power, of course, and because it is completely enclosed it technically counts as “indoor” testing, which is much simpler to obtain approval for. For outdoor tests you require special authorization to make sure you will not be messing with nearby flight paths.
Grad student Matthew Romano in a U-M video stated, “We can test our system as much as we want without fear of it breaking, without fear of hurting other people.” He also said, “It really lets us push the boundaries and allows us to really move quickly on iterating and developing the system and testing our algorithms.”
And because it is outside, students can even test in the lovely Michigan weather.
U-M aerospace engineering professor Ella Atkins, mentioned, “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.”
I feel for the neighbors, though. That buzzing is going to get irritating.
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