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Micro/Nano Exploration, Manipulation and Assembly: Telehaptics and Virtual Reality System Development and Investigation of Biomechanics and Neuroscience of Touch

Final Report Summary - MICRONANOTELEHAPTICS (Micro/Nano Exploration, Manipulation and Assembly: Telehaptics and Virtual Reality System Development and Investigation of Biomechanics and Neuroscience of Touch)

This multidisciplinary research in this project is driven by the following basic question: Is it possible to develop a system of robotic and computer interfaces through which a user can be immersed in micro- to nanoscale environments so as to touch, explore, manipulate and assemble micro/nanostructures as easily as we handle objects in our macroscopic world? Just as the optical microscope extended our vision into the microworld, such a system would extend our reach into the micro- and nano-worlds to enable “learning-by doing” in micro/nanoscale. It should therefore rapidly increase our ability to both understand micro/nanoscale mechanisms and synthesize novel micro/nanostructures. We can then expect significant impact in a wide variety of fields ranging from material science to microbiology to nanomedicine.

The primary objective of the project was to develop a human interface technology to micro/nano worlds and a secondary objective was to demonstrate the power of the system in the context of exploring the basic science of touch. Just as optics of the eye and acoustics of the ear are fundamental to understand our senses of vision and hearing, the biomechanics of skin is important to understand our sense of touch. Despite their critical importance, mechanotransduction and the sense of touch are the least understood of sensory mechanisms at the biomechanical, cellular and molecular levels.

To date, we have developed a system of robotic and computer interfaces, through which a user is able to manually explore, manipulate and assemble progressively smaller objects ranging from micro- to nano-meter scales. This includes technical achievements such as device abstraction software, manipulation stage design, computer vision registration techniques, micro-electromechanical system integration and optical design. We have successfully built and integrated custom-built optical systems consisting of high resolution fluorescence, lightsheet and lightfield microscopy for both 3D imaging of freely moving organisms and volumetric calcium imaging of neural response. We have also captured results at a micron scale describing the mechanics and neural response of touch receptors in the nematode C. elegans. To encapsulate this work within a 3D quantitative model, we have developed protocols for transforming cross section data of C.elegans into a finite element model. Based on these experiments and model, we have new insights on how touch stimuli at microscale cause neurons to respond. Going further, we have used atomic force microscopy to investigate the biomechanics of live C. elegans at nanoscale as well. With the technology we have already developed, we will continue to perform series of ground-breaking experiments that evaluate the different mechanisms that underlie mechanotransduction in order to gain a fundamental understanding of our sense of touch.

Complimenting this work, the group has been awarded a significant capital grant of £3m from the UK Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC). This investment will provide a platform to extend the research capability being developed through the Advanced ERC grant into new domains such as evaluating other model microorganisms. We have also been awarded two ERC proof of concept grants of about 150K euros each to use our existing protocols in robotic teleoperation to tackle known challenges within the in vitro fertilisation (IVF) domain. In addition, we have been awarded multiple grants exceeding £5m from EPSRC to adapt the technologies we have developed to a variety of novel applications such as 10m workspace robots used in aircraft wing inspections, drone-based 3D printing of buildings, micromechanics of prostate cancer cells, and volumetric imaging in malaria diagnosis. With all these activities, the group is growing and is able to deliver significant impact in science, technology, and application domains. And none of this would have been possible without the foundational research funded by the ERC Advanced Grant.