STMicro and the BioRobotics Institute Establish Joint Lab to Develop Advanced Robots and Smart Systems

July 31, 2011 by Jeff Shepard

STMicroelectronics (ST) and Scuola Superiore Sant’Anna of Pisa, a research center of advanced robotics, have announced the creation of a joint laboratory for research and innovation in bio-robotics, smart systems and microelectronics.

Supporting the expansion of research in biologically-inspired robots with human-like structures and behavior, ST and the BioRobotics Institute of Scuola Superiore Sant’Anna are working to extend their understanding of locomotion principles in sensing, actuation, dynamics and control of various biological systems with the opening of a joint laboratory in Catania, Italy, where ST has advanced R&D activities in robotics and automation, smart system integration, as well as the exploration of new materials and technologies, including opto-electronics and electronics on plastic. This joint lab will enable the close collaboration leading to a better understanding of the physical design of bodies and the organization of their sensory and nervous systems.

In the past five years, ST and Scuola Superiore Sant’Anna have been collaborating to develop and promote advanced robotics and ’smart’ systems based on ST’s leading-edge semiconductor products and technologies. Completed joint projects include DustBot, a scientific platform integrating self-driven, self-navigating ’service robots’ for selective waste collection and street cleaning in city centers, which were successfully demonstrated in a number of places around the world in 2009.

With logistics, material and equipment supplied by ST, as well as skilled researchers, the new joint lab brings researchers and engineers from Scuola Superiore Sant’Anna and ST closer together to delve into the development of new concepts and applications in bio-robotics, smart sensors, energy harvesting, and to examine the application of new materials to expand the horizons of today’s microelectronics.

In smart systems, which are miniaturized devices that incorporate functions of sensing, actuation and control, the collaboration is already exploring the capabilities of smart sensors in medical applications, where experts from ST and Scuola Superiore Sant’Anna are collaborating to develop smart toys equipped with motion and pressure sensors for early diagnosis of neuro-developmental delays and autistic pathologies in small children. While the child plays with the smart toy, the system will constantly monitor the child’s movement and posture, as well as how he/she grasps or holds the toy. The researchers anticipate that doctors will be able to diagnose neurological abnormalities in children, even before the child is able to speak. The ST and Scuola Superiore Sant’Anna researchers, in collaboration with medical institutions and a toy manufacturer, expect to prototype toys with sensors for infants, including clear operating guides for doctors, within the next two years.

"Bio-robotics and smart systems will be fundamental to the sustainable development of human society in the 21st century, improving our quality of life in all its aspects, from manufacturing and medicine to smart homes and environment protection," said Professor Paolo Dario, Director of the BioRobotics Institute of Scuola Superiore Sant’Anna. "The joint laboratory will help advance our efforts in creating the next generation of intelligent systems integrating microelectronics, mechanics and computing technologies."

"Semiconductor-fueled innovation plays a key role in the development of robotic and smart systems," said Carmelo Papa, Senior Executive Vice President, General Manager of ST’s Industrial & Multisegment Sector, and Chairman of the European Platform on Smart Systems (EPoSS). "By combining ST’s decades-long expertise in semiconductor technology and industrial automation with Scuola Superiore Sant’Anna’s globally acclaimed know-how in robotics, we aim to accelerate the advancement of new applications and devices that will help enrich and protect people’s lives. Cooperation has always been in ST’s DNA and a key element of the Company’s strategic vision. We are confident that the new lab will serve as a model of excellence in industrial-academic cooperation, translating rich R&D potential into globally competitive, marketable results."

In bio-robotics, the joint laboratory will also focus on exploiting the use of new materials in advanced applications, yielding lighter-weight and more resilient robots. These new materials include Shape Memory Alloys, or smart metals, which exhibit unique, muscle-like properties, such as pseudo-elasticity and the shape memory effect. Such materials ’remember’ their original shape and, after deformation, can return to their pre-deformed shape when heated. This quality can be useful in a wide range of applications, including medical equipment and aviation.

The newly established laboratory will take an active role in the smart system efforts and initiatives coordinated by EPoSS. Integration of smart systems aims to address global challenges and opportunities, including health and aging or sustainable mobility by giving intelligent and adaptable functionalities to the user, utilizing new materials and technologies, and redefining the interaction between people and technology.