January 31, 2015      

Editor’s note: There are over fifty colleges and universities in North America with undergraduate and post-grad degree programs in robotics. We’ve spotlighted some of the more well-known and long established like Carnegie Mellon, Georgia Tech, Worcester Polytechnic and the Polytechnique Montreal among others.

careers in robotics

There’s also a fresh new trend out there that’s quickly adding ever more schools to those throttling up on robotics education.

Some are newbies like the University of Nevada, Las Vegas that is putting its formerly small program on steroids; others are hot startups like the University of California, San Diego; and still others like the University of Michigan are ramping up well-oiled engineering programs with strong degree-granting in robotics.

What’s behind it? The rise of robotics nearly everywhere, for sure, as this newest of technologies converges with industry, business and society almost everywhere at once. Then too, there are the hundreds of thousands of jobs and careers lining up around robotics that are today – and for the foreseeable future – absolutely necessary to make all that burgeoning, disruptive technology click.

In advance of our next webcast, Careers in Robotics, we sent our John Edwards off to put another one of these robotics hotbeds under the spotlight: the University of Michigan.

University of Michigan Robotics

University of Michigan: Robotics on the Move Advanced facilities and corporate/government alliances propel research in autonomous vehicles and other areas

The University of Michigan is considered one of the United States’ leading research universities. In recent years, the Ann Arbor-based school has ramped up its STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) programs and delved deeply into robotics research and education.

The University of Michigan offers pre- and post-graduate programs encompassing a wide range of robotics-related disciplines, including computer science, mechanical engineering, computer vision, electrical engineering, artificial intelligence, control systems, psychology, human-robot interaction, sociology, philosophy, ethics, law, biomedical engineering, medicine, business, economics and public policy.

Robotic education and research are also tightly integrated into the university’s college of engineering, which has top-ranked programs in mechanical engineering, electrical engineering and computer science, as well as specializations in aerospace engineering, naval architecture, marine engineering, and atmospheric, oceanic and space sciences. Robotic applications are increasingly important in all of these fields, as well as in medicine, where the university has a world-class program, says Edwin Olson, a University of Michigan associate professor of computer science and engineering.

Beginning last fall, the college of engineering began offering graduate degrees in robotics up to the doctoral level. The program focuses on three core robotic disciplines: sensing, reasoning and localization. Each of these areas can constitute a sub-plan for coursework and research study. The robotics program aims to train students as independent researchers and engineers, as well as future leaders in robotics research in academia, industry, and government, Olson notes.

Autonomous Mobility Alliances

Given the State of Michigan’s automotive heritage, it’s not surprising that the University of Michigan has forged several robotic research programs and initiatives with leading automakers as well as other organizations interested in developing autonomous navigation technologies. Michigan’s Perceptual Robotics Laboratory (PeRL), for example, works with various external partners to study issues related to autonomous navigation and mapping for mobile robots in unknown environments.


PeRL’s ultimate goal is to create robots with the ability to autonomously navigate and map their environment by recognizing previously visited places, much as a human would. Addressing this issue, PeRL researchers balance theory with experimental validation, developing algorithms for use in research areas such as underwater computer vision, image processing, Bayesian filtering and smoothing and systems engineering. Such research is then applied to and tested with new hardware platforms, such as autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) and various types of ground robots.

Current PeRL projects include developing an automated Ford Fusion, creating an autonomous ship-hull inspection for the U.S. Navy, designing multi-AUV cooperative navigation and active safety situational awareness for automotive vehicles, a large-area acoustic and optical simultaneous localization and mapping (SLAM) system and the design of a multi-AUV SLAM testbed. Most recently, the lab has started work on a dual ground/aerial robotics testbed as part of the Naval Engineering Education Center (NEEC).

Safer and Sustainable Transportation

fusion track test

The University of Michigan also operates the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute (UMTRI), which is dedicated to achieving safe and sustainable transportation for a global society. With the assistance of a multimillion-dollar research program, deep faculty expertise and multiple corporate/government collaborators, UMTRI aims to ultimately increase driving safety and further transportation systems knowledge. Robotic technologies lie at the core of many UMTRI projects.

Since its inception in 1965, UMTRI has earned a national and international reputation for its motor-vehicle safety research related to injury biomechanics. UMTRI has since embraced a variety of disciplines and is now at the forefront of connected-vehicle research and testing, sustainable mobility systems, transportation data fusion and analysis and numerous other cutting edge research areas.

UMTRI’s current, approximately 120-member, staff includes full-time researchers, technical and administrative personnel, teaching faculty affiliated with the university’s academic departments, graduate students and other support staff members. UMTRI research scientists collaborate with many academic, government, and industry partners to accomplish interdisciplinary research, generating new knowledge and providing student training, says Peter Sweatman, UMTRI’s director

According to Sweatman, UMTRI is designed to serve as a focal point for conducting transportation systems research spanning drivers, vehicles, communication technology and the local infrastructure. Sweatman is currently working to create new research and policy capabilities to address the broader challenges of safety, mobility, energy and greenhouse emissions. He is also helping to develop new research fields that will speed the transition from today’s automotive industry to the transportation industries of the future. Sweatman’s own current research interests include intelligent transportation systems (ITS) and vehicle electrification.

UMTRI’s core initiatives for safe and sustainable transportation include the Center for the Management of Information for Safe and Sustainable Transportation (CMISST), Sustainable Mobility & Accessibility Research & Transformation (SMART), Sustainable Worldwide Transportation (SWT) and the Mobility Transformation Center (MTC).

Test Track of the Future

Particularly important to Sweatman is UMTRI’s new Mobility Transformation Facility (MTF), a project that will create one of the world’s most advanced robotic vehicle test tracks. Currently under construction on approximately 32 acres, MTF will include a simulated city center and a replica four-lane highway that are designed to help researchers test how well automated and networked vehicles respond to rare but dangerous traffic events and road conditions. Such testing is a vital step in making sure that advanced autonomous vehicles can operate safely in the real world. “It is designed so that we can put test vehicles onto continuous loops that we can vary in different ways, which is important to robotics research,” Sweatman says. The MTF is scheduled to open this spring.

test track

“The facility gives us an opportunity to investigate where we’re at with automated technologies,” Sweatman says. “This includes evaluating the robustness of the technology, working on and testing particular sensors and, of course, eventually developing some test scenarios that will be important for the deployment of automated vehicle technologies.”

Sweatman adds that many of these tests will eventually be integrated into standards development processes and, probably, into the creation of autonomous vehicle regulations.

The MTF was designed from the outset to accommodate autonomous vehicle research. “We made sure that our test facility had that capability,” Sweatman says. “It’s really a unique facility, because it’s very practical in terms of having all of the elements you would see on a roadway, such as traffic signals, lighting, land configurations, roadway markings, pedestrian crossings and so on.”

Sweatman expects that the MTF will quickly become a highly active testbed for studying creative and even revolutionary autonomous vehicle technologies. Yet he notes that the process of developing a fully autonomous vehicle – one capable of safely navigating city streets or cruising down a freeway at high speed – will almost certainly be both long and challenging. “There are a variety of views about how soon we’ll be able to get to a totally driverless vehicle; one that you could simply get into, dial a destination, do nothing and get delivered,” he says. “In all, that’s fairly challenging technology.”

Olson observes that autonomous vehicles are relatively easy to design, yet devilishly difficult to refine. “It’s not hard to get a robot to drive around the city, and it’s not hard to make a sexy five-minute video where the robot is doing impressive things,” he notes. “But to push the reliability to the point where you’re matching or even exceeding human performance … That’s where the really hard problems are.”

According to Olson, the human body possesses an array of input sensors that robotics engineers will be hard pressed to fully replicate. “One of the reasons humans are so good at driving is because we have great sensors,” he says. “Although our eyes are maybe the dominant sensor, the inner ear is important, too, in that it gives us a sense of how we’re rotating and moving through space.” The sense of touch also comes into play while driving. “The tactical feedback of the steering wheel on our hands and the feedback of the gas pedal – and even our ‘butt sensor’- all play a role in safe driving,” Olson explains.

Like Sweatman, Olson believes that autonomous vehicle research still has a long way to go. “It comes down to the fact that our ability to get cars to understand their surroundings is really primitive,” he says. “When you put a car out on the road it has to be able to decode lane markings, street signs, roadway topology and what other vehicles are supposed to be doing, and it’s still impossible for a robot to do all of these tasks fast enough or reliably enough.”

Transformational Technology

Despite the numerous challenges that still must be surmounted, Sweatman believes that robotics offers the potential to fundamentally change people’s lives. “Our view is that the technology is transformational,” he says. “Because it brings so many advantages and makes people’s lives better – a lot better – we think it will be attractive to consumers.”

For the auto industry, robotics promises both change and opportunity. “In a nutshell, we see a reinvention of the automotive industry globally, based here in Detroit and Michigan,” Sweatman says. “We’re looking for an industry that provides mobility as a service and that uses connected and automated technology to make that service very safe, efficient and sustainable.”

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