Michigan Grants Support Post-COVID-19 Robotics Work

PlanetM, the state’s mobility initiative and a division of the Michigan Economic Development Corporation, has awarded more than $280,000 to efforts to accelerate future-facing robotics projects.

by / June 1, 2020
This Large area autonomous Disinfecting robotic vehicle (LaaD) will be deployed at the Gerald R. Ford International Airport in Grand Rapids, Mich. to sanitize surfaces in the airport terminal. The LaaD is developed by Pratt Miller. Submitted Photo/Pratt Miller

With a focus on autonomous technology and health safety, Michigan has awarded grants to five companies to develop systems for a post-COVID-19 future.

PlanetM, the state’s mobility initiative and a division of the Michigan Economic Development Corporation, awarded more than $280,000 to efforts to accelerate the development of autonomous deliveries, cleaning, and safety partitions to protect workers in transportation vehicles. 

“Early research indicates that COVID-19 will have a significant impact on the future of transportation, including the need to rethink, or pivot, existing business models, designs and guidelines to protect consumers and operators alike,” said Charlie Tyson, technology activation manager at PlanetM.

Some 98 companies applied for the round of grant funding, with grants awarded to five companies, specially structured to respond to the pandemic crisis.

“PlanetM transitioned its existing Pilot Grant funds and program to the COVID-19 Mobility Solutions Grant, to provide funding to companies developing and deploying mobility solutions that address the crucial challenges presented by the virus within the state of Michigan,” Tyson explained in an email.

“Part of the criteria was that mobility solutions must fall within one of the following categories: limit human interaction, expand no-touch technologies, deliver food and supplies, and integrate virus detection and prevention measures — e.g. safeguarding transit.”

Penske Vehicle Services (PVS) and RCO Engineering were awarded $28,000 each to take part in a pilot project to develop safety partitions for transit vehicles to shield drivers from riders. 

Also, the company Pratt Miller was awarded $50,000 to deploy its Large area autonomous Disinfecting robotic vehicle (LaaD) at the Gerald R. Ford International Airport in Grand Rapids. The robot will roam the terminal spraying disinfectant around the boarding gate areas via its “multi-head electrostatic sprayer array,” said Christopher Andrews, director of mobility and innovation at Pratt Miller, based in New Hudson, Mich.

The LaaD vehicle has been put to defense uses and, “while the needs of the defense and commercial markets are different, there are many learnings that can be applied cross market,” said Andrews.

“In this post COVID-19 world it has become evident that disinfecting and decontamination of areas including airports, hotels, workplaces, sporting arenas, and other areas will need to provide a new level of sanitary and environmental confidence to make citizens feel safe,” he added.

Another company, Gatik, based in Palo Alto, Calif., was awarded $100,000 to deploy autonomous delivery vehicles to travel fixed routes throughout Grand Rapids and Rochester.

“The key to Gatik’s success involves optimizing fixed, predetermined routes, such as those used along the supply chain’s 'middle mile,' countless times each day,” said Richard Steiner, head of policy and communications at Gatik.

The company, which has been working with Walmart since July 2019, aims to address “middle mile” short-haul, business-to-business deliveries to support the growing e-commerce industry.

“As a result of COVID-19, Gatik’s solution has never been more important,” said Steiner. “Retailers are grappling with major logistics challenges and a dramatic rise in online orders.”

GHSP was awarded $80,000 to put into practice its mobile ultra-violet light system to detect when riders are in a shared vehicle, and then disinfect high-touch surfaces, and the air, following their exit, in an effort to reduce the transmission of COVID-19 and other highly communicable diseases.

The technology will be installed into an autonomous shuttle fleet in Grand Rapids, with the pilot project possibly launching other similar efforts in other parts of the state or transportation systems.

“With the challenges our world is currently facing with the COVID-19 pandemic, we’re very pleased that we’re able to bring this technology to the market at this time,” said Tom Rizzi, CEO of GHSP, in a statement. “Helping improve the safety of the emergency service and public safety providers that expose themselves every day to help others was a big driver in getting this product developed and this technology will also create new engineering and manufacturing jobs in our Michigan economy.”

Skip Descant Staff Writer

Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Sacramento.

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