Leading researcher in small-scale robotics receives ERC Advanced Grant

Stuttgart – Dr. Metin Sitti, Director at the Max Planck Institute for Intelligent Systems in Stuttgart and Head of the Physical Intelligence Department, has been awarded an Advanced Grant from the European Research Council (ERC). One of the world’s most prestigious research grants, it is awarded only to established researchers with a proven track record of excellence. In terms of the originality and significance of research contributions, grant recipients are exceptional leaders.

The grant of 2.5 million euros will provide the Physical Intelligence Department with five years of funding to conduct ground-breaking, high-risk research in the “Soft-bodied Miniature Mobile Robots (SoMMoR)” project. Dr. Sitti and his team will pursue the ambitious goal of developing untethered mobile robots ranging in size from a few micrometers to a few millimeters.

“With this new project grant, I look forward to pushing the scientific boundaries of what is currently possible with untethered small-scale soft robots and their use in clinical applications,” says Dr. Sitti.

This year, the EU is investing a total of 540 million Euros to boost cutting-edge research. 222 scientists will receive such a grant, of which 33 conduct their research in Germany. Carlos Moedas, European Commissioner for Research, Science and Innovation, said: “The ERC Advanced Grants back outstanding researchers throughout Europe. Their pioneering work has the potential to make a difference in people’s everyday life and deliver solutions to some of our most urgent challenges. The ERC gives these bright minds the possibility to follow their most creative ideas and to play a decisive role in the advancement of all domains of knowledge.”

Soft milli- and microrobots such as those developed by Dr. Sitti and his team of researchers hold huge potential. “I am certain our findings will have a radical impact on medicine in the near future,” Dr. Sitti says. He and his team are working intensively with the aim of developing untethered tiny machines that will one day be able to access smaller regions inside the body, remain inside for long periods of time as semi-implantable medical devices, and enable minimally or non-invasive diagnostic and therapeutic interventions in regions that are currently difficult or impossible to reach.

Before these tiny robots become tools that can be used for minimally invasive medical procedures, many challenges must still be overcome. To name a few, these include the 3D design, fabrication with safe materials, programming, robust locomotion and precise navigation inside the complex human body, as well as the integration of diagnostic and therapeutic functions.

Dr. Sitti and his team has been working on shape-programmable tiny soft machines built with biocompatible magnetic soft materials for many years, and their findings have been published in the world’s most prestigious scientific journals. “My team’s previous publications in Nature and PNAS in recent years related to magnetic soft millirobots constitute the preliminary work for this grant proposal,“ Dr. Sitti says. For instance, in January 2018, the scientists showed how they were able to actuate a millirobot through external magnetic fields or gradients, enabling it to crawl, swim, jump or roll safely through the digestive system, for instance. The robot can be loaded with cargo such as medication, and can be tracked by medical imaging systems in real time.

The ERC Advanced Grant panel’s evaluation report illustrates what positive impression the SoMMoR project made: “The fabrication and design of 3D programmable magnetic soft composite robots is truly challenging, even though such devices have already been made in 1D and 2D. Locomotion and control are extremely challenging parts of the research proposal, and the approach here goes far beyond existing technologies.” The report also emphasizes Dr. Sitti’s outstanding research in his field: “Metin Sitti is one of the leading scientists in soft robotics and their use in medical applications. His recent Nature paper attracted attention all over the world. He has proven to be a very original scientist who comes up with groundbreaking ideas and original inventions. His work features the unique combination of ideas and detailed experimental approaches that combine science with medical problems. His activities at different universities and base at the Max Planck Institute for Intelligent Systems in Stuttgart provide the best possible foundation to explore novel engineering approaches based on the most advanced science. He excels in taking the best recent science and combining it with novel applications.”

With the funds from the ERC Advanced Grant, Dr. Sitti plans to further expand his team. “I plan to support two post-doctoral researchers, one technician, and four Ph.D. students with this funding.”


Dr. Metin Sitti has been a Director at the Max Planck Institute for Intelligent Systems in Stuttgart, Germany since summer 2014. He also holds a part-time professorship at the Schools of Medicine and Engineering at Koç University in Istanbul, Turkey (since 2018), an honorary professorship at the University of Stuttgart (since 2017), and is Distinguished Professor at Carnegie Mellon University (since 2016).

In 1992 and 1994, respectively, Sitti received his BSc and MSc degrees in electrical and electronics engineering (physics double major) from Boğaziçi University in Istanbul, Turkey. He then completed his Ph.D. in electrical engineering at the University of Tokyo in 1999. He was a research scientist from 1999 to 2002 and a lecturer in 2002 at the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at the University of California at Berkeley. Dr. Sitti has also been a Visiting Professor at Harvard, EPFL, and Sorbonne University.
His research interests include small-scale physical intelligence, mobile medical milli- or microrobots, bio- inspiration, and advanced micro/nanoscale materials. Sitti has co-authored or peer-reviewed 230 journal and 130 conference papers. He has over 10 issued and 12 pending patents, and has given over 160 talks at universities, research labs, conferences, and in industry. Moreover, Sitti has raised around USD 14 million in research funding from NSF, NASA, NIH, industry, and DoD in the United States, and founded a start-up company (nanoGriptech, Inc.) in the United States to commercialize gecko-inspired adhesives. Since 2002, he has trained 53 (21 current) PhD students and 53 (24 current) postdoctoral fellows. More than 27 of his lab members have become assistant/associate professors at Cornell University, University of Toronto, UIUC, Oregon State University, Virginia Tech, WPI, Arizona State University, Louisiana State University, Texas Tech, Nanyang Technological University (Singapore), Tampere University of Technology (Finland), Bilkent University (Turkey), University of Sheffield (UK), Delft University of Technology (Netherlands), etc. Moreover, some of his lab members are working in industry as senior researchers at companies including Intuitive Surgical, Apple, Intel, Google, BostonDynamics, Schlumberger, 3M, and Blue Origin.

Dr. Sitti is an IEEE Fellow. He received the Rahmi Koç Medal of Science in 2018, the SPIE Nanoengineering Pioneer Award in 2011, and the NSF CAREER Award in 2005. He received the IEEE/ASME Best Mechatronics Paper Award in 2014, the Best Poster Award at the Adhesion Conference in 2014, the Best Paper Award at the IEEE/RSJ International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems in 2009 and 1998, the Best Biomimetics Paper Award at the IEEE Robotics and Biomimetics Conference in 2004, and the Best Video Award at the IEEE Robotics and Automation Conference in 2002. He has been editor-in-chief of the Progress in Biomedical Engineering since 2018 and of the Journal of Micro-Bio Robotics since 2008.

About the ERC
The European Research Council, set up by the European Union in 2007, is the first European funding organisation for excellent frontier research. Every year, it selects and funds the very best, creative researchers of any nationality and age, to run projects based in Europe.

In this round, researchers of 29 nationalities received funding. The grantees will carry out their projects at universities and research centers in 20 countries across the EU and Horizon 2020 Associated countries.

Demand for ERC grants remains very high: 2,052 research proposals were submitted this time, out of which almost 11% were selected for funding. Female researchers submitted more than 19% of proposals and some 20% of grants were awarded to women.

Find out more here: https://erc.europa.eu/funding

Press Contact:
Linda Behringer
Max Planck Institute for Intelligent Systems, Stuttgart
T: +49 711 689 3552
M: +49 151 2300 1111

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