Michigan Automotive Robotics Cluster Initiative Begins to Take Shape

5/11/10

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in war zones or conduct reconnaissance for the infantry could be adapted for police and fire departments to provide safer ways to go into potentially dangerous situations.

Companies in a potential Michigan automotive robotics cluster have a lot to offer in developing such dual-use technology, Braden says.

“Strangely enough,” he explains, old-line industrial robots have much in common with mobile robots. While they work on different scales, they each have the same need for sophisticated built-in sensors and safety stops. Yet, the two industries had little interaction until relatively recently.

“We never got the industrial robot people talking to the mobile robot people until about 16 months ago,” Braden says, referring to an earlier meeting of the Great Lakes AUVSI. “Everybody had that ‘aha’ moment of, ‘Wow, we have exactly the same issues—on a different scale.’”

In mid-December, Braden and the MEDC, the organization that is spearheading the effort, put out a request for information (PDF) about a possible cluster initiative and 59 companies responded. Of those, Braden says, 19 are what he calls “hardcore, small robotics companies” that have been working on military or commercial applications for small, mobile ground robots. Another 40 have either done industrial-type robots or are into automated systems that could be incorporated into mobile robotics systems.

He estimates there could be a total of 100 companies in Michigan that might play a role in the cluster, including some that work with snowmobiles and all terrain vehicles (ATVs) and could team with companies working with sensors to bring autonomous features into their products.

One product Braden believes could be created is a small, mobile autonomous platform. In the military arena, such a system could help soldiers take some of their burdens off their backs. In the civilian market, it could be useful at construction sites, or to help farm or lawn maintenance workers move equipment and supplies around. “There’s a lot of utility in having something small that follows you around,” Braden says.

Thinking about other possible products, Braden starts blue-skying ideas. A robotic snow blower would be handy, he says. Or, maybe someday, “something near and dear to the hearts of everybody in Michigan: A robotic Zamboni.”

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