European grant awarded to develop ‘ATTO cells’ to create intelligent swarms of robots

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Professor Piet Demeester, of iMinds at Ghent University, has been awarded a European ERC Advanced Grant to pursue the development of his disruptive ATTO cell technology. Over the next five years, he will receive €2.5million to develop a fully functional ATTO proof-of-concept.

Prof Demeester and his team will investigate whether ATTO technology can be used to provide each individual entity in dense groups of moving objects with a dedicated, mobile connection of 100Gbit/s in combination with mobile signal delays of less than 10µs. As such, the team aims to lay the foundation for a range of mobile applications that require high-performance, instantaneous computing resources.

Prof Demeester said: “In a number of domains – such as manufacturing – robots have become indispensable already, but they still suffer from several shortcomings. Moving forward, flexible swarms of intelligent robots need to be created that interact in perfect harmony with human workers. And the same is to be done in numerous other sectors, such as healthcare, transportation, professional and domestic services, etc. We think ATTO cells could unlock that potential.”

ATTO could be considered an evolution of the wireless small cells technology that surrounds us today already, with large quantities of antennas being installed and each of them covering a limited area to enable high-speed wireless broadband. To put it simply: the smaller the cell becomes, the higher the speed that can be accommodated.

“Experimenting with the ATTO technology, one option is to build ATTO antennas in floor tiles. That way, we can limit the distance between the fibre-fed antennas and the receiving objects (driving robots, feet of walking robots or even shoes of humans) to a maximum of 10cm – and realise bitrates of 100Gbit/s. That is ten times the speed of the upcoming 5G technology,” explained Prof Demeester. “Next to solving challenges such as confining crosstalk between ATTO cells, reducing ATTO’s power consumption, and making sure it is a reliable technology, we will also investigate how its latency can be limited. The latter will be crucial to accommodate real-time interactions based on distributed, high-performance computing. For certain applications, we target a latency of 10µs.”

The researchers expect that ATTO will support the deployment of highly-demanding wireless services in application domains such as reconfigurable robot factories, intelligent hospitals, flexible offices, etc. In the longer term, ATTO could be instrumental in the creation of large mobile robot swarms, enabling individual robots to tap in to the computing power of the other robots in the swarm and/or local computing power in their immediate environment.