Michigan Automotive Robotics Cluster Initiative Begins to Take Shape

The robotics industry in Southeast Michigan is attempting to turn the automotive slump into an opportunity to branch off into…well, automotive.

But where once the automotive market for robotics meant industrial-strength assembly-line work, the opportunity lies now in robotic systems that can be embedded in military and civilian vehicles. Such a shift entails a change in thinking. But it’s not so big of a change that existing-or, make that, surviving-robotics companies cannot hope to make the transition.

Those who are pushing for this transition say that it simply makes sense for a region that has a great deal of underused talent in engineering and robotics, along with excess manufacturing capabilities that can be adapted to new uses. Put all the pieces all together and aim them at an opportunity that is growing, such as the automated systems and sensors market, and Southeast Michigan could become a center for world-class automotive robotics innovation.

Leading the charge into this new robotics world is Col. James Braden, director of the Michigan Economic Development Corp.’s Defense Contract Coordination Center. He is gathering together representatives from industry, academia, and government, steering them toward a new Michigan Automotive Robotics Cluster (MARC) initiative.

But don’t let the fact that there is already an acronym for it fool you. The “cluster” is really mainly an idea that Braden is trying to turn into reality by pulling together interested companies and going for funding—and that’s as far as it’s gone right now.

The germ of this idea came from a July 2009 visit from Karen Mills, an administrator for the U.S. Small Business Administration, which is encouraging regional technology cluster initiatives across the country. She met with the local chapter of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), along with area representatives of the automotive tier supply chain. Historically, Mills told the group, the robotics industry has been being driven chiefly by military needs. A big opportunity, she said, lay in transferring more of that capability to civilian use.

Braden wants to take Mills’ idea a bit further, saying that it is important to think about developing both military and civilian applications simultaneously. Robotics companies should not forego the short-term opportunity to sell to the military, he says, but they should also think about how to apply military technology to much broader commercial opportunities, such as the emergency first-responder and homeland security markets.

For example, Braden says, mobile military robots designed to find roadside bombs 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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