ANN ARBOR, APRIL 10, 2014 – Driverless vehicles prowl a cordoned section of parking lot, under the watchful eyes of their inventors. Each is loaded with racks of space-age equipment, scanning the asphalt ahead, beaming back hundreds of updates a second from laser rangefinders, cameras, and positioning sensors. Inside, the air hums with the buzz of drones as quadcopters and other unmanned aerial vehicles roam inside a netted-off area, keeping an eye on attendees as they thread their way from display to display or listen to remarks from high-profile speakers. National Robotics Week is in full swing, nowhere more so than at Michigan Robotics Day 2014. Here in Building 18 of the University of Michigan’s North Campus Research Complex, it’s a robot-lover’s heaven.
Just ask Phil Callihan. The Director of Strategic Projects at the National Center for Manufacturing Sciences (NCMS) has organized Michigan Robotics Day since 2010, and he finds robots as exciting as ever. “The event gets bigger every time,” said Callihan. “We held the first one at NCMS headquarters here in Ann Arbor. It’s a good-sized building and we were bursting at the seams. But that was pretty modest, compared to today. Robotics is big business in Michigan. Big jobs, big growth, big opportunities for the economy. Michigan Robotics Day is like an open house for the whole industry.”
Co-hosted by NCMS and the University of Michigan, the event showcases the latest advancements in robotics technology. Over 500 registered for the event, which is open to the public. Enthusiasts, scientists, business leaders, students, and government officials mingle among displays that would have been science fiction just a few years ago. More and more, public policy reflects the speed of innovation. Late last year, Governor Rick Snyder signed Bill 169, which sets rules for driverless vehicle testing on Michigan highways, making it one of only three states with such legislation. Robotics is already big business in Michigan, and supporters of the bill believe that 169 will produce further economic ripples, as autonomous vehicle innovators are lured in by the promise of real world road testing of driverless cars and trucks.
“If you’re serious about autonomous vehicle testing, Michigan is really the only choice,” explained Callihan. “A couple other states have similar laws, but they’re not ideal environments to torture test a vehicle. Robotics companies need Michigan’s new laws, but they also need Michigan’s rain, Michigan’s snow, and Michigan’s salt. You don’t get that stuff in southern California.”
For Rick Jarman, President and CEO of NCMS, events like Michigan Robotics Day and the passage of 169 validate a trend he knew was coming. “People who watch manufacturing knew robotics was about to cross a threshold,” Jarman said. “The question was just how, and when. Defense robotics is a multi-billion dollar industry, and we’ve only scratched the surface of what robotics will mean in the commercial sector.”
During his keynote speech earlier, Kiva Systems co-founder and Chief Technical Officer Pete Wurman was equally enthusiastic. His company, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Amazon.com, provides some of the drone technology that makes the online retailer’s fulfillment centers so efficient. “It’s only the beginning,” Wurman promised.
Gesturing up at the drone area, Jarman said, “these are all designed and built by companies in Michigan. They deserve a chance to show off some of what they’ve accomplished, and that’s what today is about. A chance to show the public where robotics is going, and what it’s already done, economically, for the state.
“We are in Michigan,” Jarman added with a smile. “Maybe we should start with autonomous snowplows.”
Michigan’s celebration of National Robotics Week continues on April 13 with Tech Night at the Palace. Co-hosted by the Detroit Pistons, NCMS, and the Engineering Society of Detroit, the Saturday evening event will feature more robotics demonstrations and family-friendly activities at the Palace of Auburn Hills. See http://www.nba.com/pistons for more information.