September 08, 2015      

Singapore, renowned as a global financial hub, is rapidly building a reputation as a robotics innovator. The island city-state is drawing on its world-class educational system and the finance and industrial communities to pioneer technologies in virtually all key areas of robotics.

“Robotics is interdisciplinary and [a] disruptive enabler for the urgent need of healthcare in the aging society, productivity for economic growth, complexity, and sustainability of urban environments and safety and security worldwide,” observed Prof. Chen I-Ming, director of the Robotics Research Center at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University. “We are now at the dawn of a new robotics and intelligent machine age very similar to that of the Internet age in the early 1990s.”

Rich in research

For a nation that covers only 276 square miles, about half the geographical size of Los Angeles, Singapore has an abundance of robotics research facilities. Several major research universities, including Nanyang Technological University, the National University of Singapore, and Singapore Polytechnic, are playing a prime role in driving robotics innovation in Singapore.

In response to the Singapore government’s commitment to create a “smart nation,” most of the country’s university research projects are focused on two general areas: human-centric robotics and infrastructure robotics.

Human-centric systems are deployed close to and even inside people, including healthcare robots, robotic co-workers, and social interaction robots. Infrastructure robotics encompasses intelligent robots and related automation technologies that are dedicated to civil construction, inspection, and maintenance services.

Nanyang Technological University’s Robotics Research Center was established in 1994 to conduct cutting-edge research in robotics and to produce robot industry leaders and workers. The center currently has 23 active faculty principal investigators, 50 research staffers, 50 Ph.D. students, and three technical support staff members. It focuses on biomedical robotics, industrial automation, and studies of human-robot interactions.

In February 2015, the research center introduced a novel bio-inspired robotic sock, designed to prevent bed-ridden individuals from developing deep vein thrombosis (DVT), a potentially life-threatening condition caused by blood clots forming along the lower extremity veins of the legs. Equipped with soft actuators that mimic the tentacle movements of undersea corals, the sock emulates natural lower-leg muscle contractions in the wearer’s leg, promoting blood circulation throughout the body. The device also promises to optimize therapy sessions and enable the patient’s lower leg movements to be monitored to improve therapy outcomes.

Another major Singapore-based robotics research facility is the Advanced Robotics Center at the National University of Singapore. Established in late 2012, the center hopes to become a leading source of robotics research.

Robotic swan in Singapore

This swan-disguised GPS-guided robot takes water measurements without attracting attention.

In July 2015, the center’s researchers attracted media attention with the introduction of a GPS-guided robot that’s designed to look like a swan to blend in with its surroundings. The device can take critical water-quality measurements and wirelessly transmit results back to researchers.
It can float around a designated area taking various types of readings. The Global Positioning System ensures that the robot doesn’t check the same area twice.

The center has also won its share of international honors. In January 2015, a team led by Assistant Professor Adrian Koh won the Silver Prize for most outstanding paper at the IEEE International Conference on Electronics, Information and Communication (ICEIC 2015).

The paper, “Large Actuation of an Acrylic-Based Dielectric Elastomer Actuator in Tubular Configuration,” described a technology that set a world-record actuation stretch of up to three times its original length.

The Center for Robotics and Artificial Intelligence at Singapore Polytechnic specializes in the development of new technologies for robots and related systems. Current research efforts span fields including navigation and mapping in dynamic environments, object recognition and manipulation, human-robot interaction, human intent recognition, adaptive behaviors, and ambient intelligence. The center also seeks industry collaboration to meet the needs of the Singapore’s infrastructure inspection, logistics, healthcare, transport and “edutainment” industries.

Still more robotics research can be found at the Singapore Institute for Neurotechnology, which develops both surgical robots and robotic devices designed to help people coping with various types of injuries or disabilities. Recent projects include a portable knee-ankle-foot robot designed for gait rehabilitation, a wearable inertial sensing system for biomechanics studies and a compliant shape memory actuation (SMA) device designed for rehabilitation applications.

Singapore reaches beyond its borders for talent

Singapore’s government plays a major role in nurturing the nation’s robotics industry. The National Research Foundation, created in January 2006 as a department within the prime minister’s office, is responsible for setting the nation’s research and development goals. The NRF develops specific policies and plans for research, innovation, and enterprise. The office also funds strategic initiatives aimed at strengthening Singapore’s research and scientific capabilities and works to build up R&D capabilities by nurturing research talent as well as attracting foreign researchers and scientists.

In addition, the NRF coordinates the research agendas of various government and industry organizations with the stated aim of transforming Singapore into a knowledge-intensive, innovative, and entrepreneurial economy. Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean is the NRF’s chairman.

Building connections with robotics researchers worldwide is a major goal of NRF and Singapore’s major research universities. A key initiative is the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology (SMART), a collaborative program between the NRF and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

With lead researchers drawn from both MIT and several Singapore universities — including the National University of Singapore and the Singapore University of Technology and Design — the program offers four-year graduate fellowships, covering tuition for students at the affiliated schools, as well as undergraduate and postdoctoral research fellowships.

Self-driving golf cart

A self-driving golf cart developed by SMART researchers.

At the International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems, held in Singapore in September 2015, SMART researchers presented the results of an experiment conducted over six days at a large public garden in Singapore, using self-driving golf carts to carry 500 tourists around winding paths trafficked by pedestrians, bicyclists and the occasional monitor lizard.

They also tested an online booking system that enabled visitors to schedule pickups and drop-offs at any of 10 distinct stations scattered around the garden, automatically routing and redeploying the vehicles to accommodate all requests.

Earlier in the year, University of Southampton and SMART unveiled a deformable octopus-like robot that can zoom through water using an ultra-fast propulsion technology to reach speeds never before seen in a man-made underwater vehicle.

Robotic squid

SMART and the University of Southampton set underwater propulsion records with this octopus-like robot.

Featuring a 3D-printed skeleton with no moving parts and no energy-storage device other than a thin elastic outer hull, the researchers believe that the robot marks the first step in the development of a new generation of high-speed underwater vehicles.

The water-inflatable, foot-long, self-propelling robot rapidly deflates itself by shooting water out of its base to achieve outstanding levels of propulsion and acceleration. As the robot contracts, it can reach more than 2.6 times the thrust of a rigid rocket doing the same maneuver.

Corporations partner with academia

In April 2015, Singapore Technologies Engineering Ltd., a Singapore-based engineering firm offering products and services in the aerospace, electronics, land systems and marine sectors, announced the creation of an advanced robotics and autonomous systems laboratory with Nanyang Technological University.

The joint lab, which is set to receive S$53 million ($37 million U.S.) in funding, is supported by the NRF under its Corporate [email protected] Scheme, which encourages the formation of laboratories in Singapore via public-private partnerships. The partnership aims to develop new technologies, generate new products and services, increase employment opportunities for researchers and scientists, and provide greater exposure for students in industrial R&D.

“The vision for the ST Engineering-NTU Corporate Lab is to develop the next generation of robotics and autonomous systems that can be applied to various areas such as healthcare, urban development, transportation, environmental conservation, as well as defense and homeland security,” noted ST Engineering President and CEO Tan Pheng Hock. “These will be solutions that will improve and impact our everyday lives.”

The Singapore Industrial Automation Association (SIAA) is another important force in the nation’s robotics efforts. SIAA members include most of the nation’s major automation and electronics businesses such as CntrlWorks, as well as the Singapore-based units of many global manufacturers. The SIAA sponsors several events, including “Asian Robotics Week.” The exhibition and conference focuses on industrial, professional service, and human-centric robotics.

Automation is not a new word,” noted Oliver Tian, president of the SIAA. “However, with the convergence of key technologies such as wireless sensors, cloud computing, big data and analytics, automation in the connected world is taking on a more meaningful and significant role.”

The same might be said for Singapore, too.