NTU Singapore and Max Planck Institute of Colloids and Interfaces launch joint lab in healthcare and robotics


Nanyang Technological University, Singapore (NTU Singapore) and Germany’s Max Planck Institute of Colloids and Interfaces (MPICI) have launched a joint lab to conduct research in artificial senses and develop innovative robotics and healthcare solutions.


These include skin-like wearable devices that not only monitor health and environmental conditions through smart sensors, but also enhance prosthetic devices with ‘artificial sensing’ capabilities. 


This would allow prosthetic devices to restore rudimentary sensory functions for patients who have lost certain senses such as after accidents.


Leveraging on advanced materials, ‘skin’ electronics, biomedical engineering, and artificial intelligence (AI), the new Max Planck-NTU Joint Laboratory for Artificial Senses will also look into developing robotic technologies with sensory capabilities.


For example, robots equipped with sensing feedback can provide customised care by adjusting their interaction and engagement to suit the patient. 


The partnership will also conduct research to extend human senses beyond their natural capabilities. This includes developing new sensory technologies that will allow users to see or hear radar frequencies or microwaves, smell infections or genetic patterns, or even sense earthquakes. Such capabilities can help, for example, safety officers detect chemical leaks in a factory, or meteorologists identify subtle tectonic movements, enabling earlier earthquake warnings.


NTU President Professor Subra Suresh, said, “NTU’s collaboration with the Max Planck Society aims to take robotics and medical technologies to the next level by combining human senses, AI and machine learning. This will be beneficial for various industries, especially for healthcare as cutting-edge medical devices could reduce misdiagnosis, and allow for customised precision medicine to deliver faster, better care to patients.


“This partnership is also a reflection of NTU’s continuous drive towards research excellence where we work closely with leading international partners to develop innovative solutions that will benefit humanity.”


Located at NTU, the joint lab is also MPICI’s first venture in Southeast Asia. 


MPICI is part of the prestigious Max Planck Society for the Advancement of Sciences. Established in 1911, the Society is one of the world’s leading research organisations.


Professor Peter Fratzl, Head of the Section of Natural Sciences at the Max Planck Society, said, “Multisensing with cheap and robust sensors followed by decentral neuronal data densification will allow devices which act as “intelligent” species, turning big data into clear metainformation, such as warning signals or “senses/sensations”. The possibilities for engineering, environmental technologies, or medical treatment are breath-taking.” 


Making sense of healthcare and robotics


The joint lab will house 30 NTU and MPICI researchers and staff who will also explore mechanical sensing such as pressure and strain, and chemical sensing like smell and taste, and even physiological sensing that usually involves electrocardiograms (ECG).


Research findings will be used in the development of ‘exteroceptors’ – sensors that pick up external stimuli such as touch, sound, pressure, light, and temperature.


For example, a health monitoring device enhanced with sensory functions and AI can alert medical professionals and family members if patients are suffering from hypertension and cardiovascular diseases.


Professor Louis Phee, Dean of NTU’s College of Engineering, said, “Using technologies like artificial intelligence systems that could see, hear, smell, feel and taste beyond our biological spectrum can be built. By integrating these systems into our daily lives, we could enhance and sharpen our own human senses and increase our perception of the surroundings.”


The joint lab will be equipped with advanced materials processing instruments, high-end signals analysers, and human-machine interface and machine learning algorithm-based setups.


It will also serve as a platform and launch pad for scientists, engineers and students to take their ideas from the lab, to working prototypes that can be commercialised.