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University of Michigan Founds New Department of Robotics, a First Among Top Engineering Schools

Laura Cowan

By Laura Cowan

Laura K. Cowan is a tech editor and journalist whose work has focused on promoting sustainability initiatives for automotive, green tech, and conscious living media outlets.

University of Michigan Robot Garden

Students arrange robots for the Robot Garden at the new Robotics building on the campus of the University of Michigan. Photos courtesy University of Michigan Marketing.

The University of Michigan Board of Regents has just approved the creation of a new Department of Robotics for the university, a first among the nation's top 10 engineering schools. According to the University of Michigan, "The new department will define robotics as a discipline, teaching students the skills needed to help drive a rapidly expanding field." This marks a first among top engineering schools around the U.S. by creating a full department to focus on the advancing field of robotics as its own discipline. 

Ford Company Robotics Building University of Michigan

The new Ford Robotics Building at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, MI.

"With this bold step forward, we are poised to lead the field in robotics, addressing the nation's growing demand for roboticists with graduates equipped to design equity-centered solutions to society's challenges," said Alec D. Gallimore, the Robert J. Vlasic Dean of Engineering. 

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the global industrial and service robotics markets are expected to grow by more than 20% year over year, to reach a total market of $310 billion by 2025. The university has studied robotics for years, but this is the first time the growing discipline will get its own resources, building, and full department at U of M, which is known for its top engineering talent and technology innovation. "This is an inflection point for the field of robotics and Michigan's role in its future," said Jessy Grizzle, director of the U-M Robotics Institute and the Elmer G. Gilbert Distinguished University Professor of Engineering. "We will leverage the resources of a dedicated department to accelerate our work in building smart machines that serve society and respect humanity—everything from safe industrial robots and bipedal humanoids to inclusive prosthetics and automated vehicles. Our roboticists put people, rather than technology, first. We call it robotics with respect." 

Karen Sussex, University of Michigan mind-controlled prosthetics testing

Karen Sussex, an upper-limb amputee, operates a mind-controlled prosthetic hand to move a can during a test session at the University of Michigan Hospital in Ann Arbor in June 2019.

The new department will build on the work of the current U-M Robotics Institute, adding more resources for students and faculty to innovate in the field. The Robotics Institute has 30 core faculty members that span 14 departments, as well as 42 affiliate faculty from fields as diverse as architecture and anthropology, which can make focused work within a discipline difficult. 

The new department will be headquartered in the new $75 million, 134,000-square-foot Ford Motor Company Robotics Building, which is being billed as the world's most advanced dedicated robotics facility. The institute currently runs a graduate program, whose first graduates completed their studies in 2014. Now more than 200 masters and doctoral students are enrolled. The department plans to hire 15 new faculty and create a four-year undergraduate degree in robotics.

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