Belgian professor receives prestigious European grant to develop disruptive wireless ‘ATTO cells’ that will be instrumental in creating intelligent swarms of robots

Pursuing a low-latency, high-speed wireless network that supports dedicated connections of 100Gbps to each entity in dense groups of moving objects (such as robots); giving them instantaneous access to remote computing resources that make them more intelligent and interactive

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

Concretely, professor 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, ultra high-speed mobile connection of 100Gbps – in combination with extremely low mobile signal delays (less than 10 µs). As such, professor Demeester aims at laying the foundation for a whole new range of mobile applications that require high-performance and instantaneous computing resources. An example includes the creation of intelligent swarms of robots.

Over the past twenty years, mobile communication technologies have had a huge impact on society. What started off with the introduction of mobile telephony has led to the creation of technology that allows us to connect people and things to the Internet.

“And now we should prepare for the next step: integrating intelligent robotics into our daily lives,” claims professor Piet Demeester (iMinds - Ghent University). “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 (or cell) to enable high-speed wireless broadband. To put it simply: the smaller the cell becomes, the higher the speed that can be accommodated. This process has taken us from macrocells to picocells, femtocells and, going forward, ATTO cells.

“Experimenting with the ATTO technology, one option is to build ATTO antennas in floor tiles. That way, we can limit the distance between the fiber-fed antennas and the receiving objects (driving robots, feet of walking robots or even shoes of humans) to a maximum of 10 centimeters – and realize bitrates of 100Gbps (both upstream and downstream). That is ten times the speed of the upcoming 5G technology,” explains Piet 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 (or mobile signal delay) can be limited. Especially the latter will be crucial to accommodate real-time interactions based on distributed, high-performance computing. For certain applications, we target a latency of 10 µs – which is several orders of magnitude better than 5G’s latency of five milliseconds.”

The iMinds - Ghent University 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, smart schools, 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. The researchers even see ATTO as a potential enabler to develop advanced brain-computer interfaces that augment (or repair) human cognitive or sensory-motor functions.

Some preliminary results of the ATTO cell research (iMinds - Ghent University) were demonstrated during iMinds The Conference (Brussels, April 28th).