Companies and students who want to test an autonomous vehicle at the University of Michigan have the excellent Mcity simulated urban environment. But if you wanted to test a drone, your options were extremely 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 untrained eye, and certainly enclosing a space with a net is considerably less labor-intensive than building an entire fake town. But the benefits are undeniable.
Excited students at a school like U-M must frequently come up with ideas for drone control systems, autonomous delivery mechanisms, new stabilization algorithms and so on. Testing them isn’t nearly as simple, 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 — tasks like these could easily overwhelm a few undergrads.
M-Air serves as a collective space that’s easy to access but built from the ground up (or rather, the air down) for safe and easy UAV testing. It’s 80 by 120 feet and five stories tall, with a covered area that can hold 25 people. There are lights and power, of course, and because it’s fully enclosed it technically counts as “indoor” testing, which is much easier to get approval for. For outdoor tests you need special authorization to ensure you won’t be messing with nearby flight paths.
We can test our system as much as we want without fear of it breaking, without fear of hurting other people,” said grad student Matthew Romano in a U-M video. “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’s outside, students can even test in the lovely Michigan weather.
“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,” said U-M aerospace engineering professor Ella Atkins.
I feel for the neighbors, though. That buzzing is going to get annoying.