BOSTON – On Wednesday, the Baker-Polito Administration announced a $4,394,848 grant to Boston University for a new research and development center called the Robotics and Autonomous Systems Teaching and Innovation Center (RASTIC). The project will drive the development of new innovations with private sector partners in Massachusetts and increase student research opportunities in the robotics space. RASTIC will emphasize real-world prototyping projects to integrate new materials, functionality, and artificial intelligence into robotic devices, delivering tools that will allow students to design and launch their own R&D projects.
The award is from the Commonwealth’s Collaborative Research and Development Matching Grant program, an effort managed by the Innovation Institute at the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative (MassTech). The grant will support a three-year, $8.78 million project managed by BU in collaboration with Boston-based MassRobotics and six industry partners, including AETLabs, Ava Robotics, Boston Scientific, GreenSight, Intel, and Ubiros.
“Thanks to the partners involved with this project and the ongoing investments made by the leading companies in our state, Massachusetts continues to be a global leader in the research and development of robotics,” said Governor Charlie Baker. “This new investment will supercharge our talent pipeline, providing students and researchers with the cutting-edge tools to work collaboratively with these leading firms, helping advance ‘Made in Massachusetts’ robotics innovation.”
“The Collaborative Research and Development grant program helps us advance research partnerships that create unmatched opportunities for our students to get hands-on training,” said Lt. Governor Karyn Polito, the co-chair of the Commonwealth’s STEM Council. “This investment adds a gleaming new facility for our robotics students and innovators across our Commonwealth, furthering advancements within autonomous vehicles, assistive devices, and many other connected technologies.”
Once launched, RASTIC will become a “neutral space” where companies can work directly with faculty and students, encouraging hands-on projects to design, prototype, and test new robotic devices. The facilities will include four distinct zones that will provide simulated and scaled settings to mimic the complex environments in which robotic devices and systems must operate. The four zones consist of:
- A scaled miniature city to design and test autonomous vehicle algorithms;
- A “soft robotics” zone, with equipment for rapid prototyping (3D printers, thermoforming machines, ovens, vacuum chamber, and small fabrication equipment);
- A planning and control zone, which will allow experiments with a variety of robotics platforms (iRobot, Boston Dynamics, etc.) for the application of small computing and control platforms; and,
- An artificial intelligence (AI) zone which will provide access to a Robotics Operating System (ROS) infrastructure which uses physics-based simulation, as well as experimentation with robotics hardware to test and deploy robotics devices.
The Commonwealth’s infrastructure investment will expand and enhance BU’s existing R&D facilities while enriching the robotics courses offered at BU, allowing for an increased enrollment in the university’s graduate-level robotics degree program by up to 80 more students per year, or five-times the current capacity.
“Robotics and autonomous systems are rapidly emerging, complex technologies that are changing the nature of work, and the economy itself, creating challenges and opportunities for college graduates,” said BU President Robert A. Brown. “To prepare our students for a changing world, Boston University has invested significantly in this area. We are grateful for the Commonwealth’s support for this new center and look forward to seeing the breakthroughs in robotics and autonomous systems resulting from this partnership.”
"The new Center will accelerate the integration of AI into robotic systems, moving away from scripted operation toward robots that can better perceive their environment, reason, and operate autonomously,” said Yannis Paschalidis, Principal Investigator (PI) of BU RASTIC, CISE Director, and BU Professor of Engineering and Computing & Data Sciences. “It will help us better train the robotics workforce of the future, and also enhance translational efforts that leverage cutting-edge robotics and autonomy research at BU to impact new commercial products."
The capabilities of the new RASTIC facility align with Massachusetts’ robotics industry strengths in autonomous aerial vehicles, connected autonomous vehicles, medical robotics, and soft robotics, and will support the R&D needs of growing companies in these areas. The facility will also be utilized through BU’s Technology Innovation Scholars Program, which uses student mentors to engage K-12 students at 21 Boston-area schools, 15 of which are in low-income districts. RASTIC will enable BU to provide additional mentors and invite K-12 students to the facility for summer enrichment programs.
“The Collaborative Research and Development Matching Grant Program has been a key piece of our strategy to build on our track record of successes and keep the Commonwealth on the cutting edge of innovation,” said Housing and Economic Development Secretary Mike Kennealy, chair of the MassTech Collaborative Board of Directors. “In our recently filed FORWARD legislation, we’ve proposed an increase in funding for the Collaborative R&D program, so we can strengthen our support for investments like RASTIC, which will accelerate the enhancement of testing capability and the talent pipeline across our state.”
“BU has been a strong partner in advancing our tech and innovation ecosystem, partnering with the private sector to drive new R&D opportunities,” said Pat Larkin, Director of the Innovation Institute at MassTech. “Their collaboration with a leading organizations like MassRobotics, and the partnership with numerous private-sector partners, highlights its ability to move great ideas from concept, to the drawing board, into the real world.”
To date, the Collaborative R&D Matching Grant program has awarded more than $43 million to projects across the state, leveraging more than $55 million in matching contributions from outside partners. This includes 10 projects that have supported innovative industry-academic collaborations and investment in novel R&D infrastructure to bolster the Massachusetts tech and innovation economy statewide.
Emerging industries supported through the grant program include cloud computing, marine robotics, printed electronics, cybersecurity/data science, and nanomaterials/smart sensors. These investments have led to the formation of 90 new industry partnerships and 54 intellectual property and licensing agreements in the past two years.
"Having obtained a PhD in Systems Engineering from Boston University, I know how important this funding will be for students studying robotics," said Representative Tommy Vitolo (D-Brookline). "I am proud that the Commonwealth continues to support robotics research and development infrastructure and look forward to celebrating this investment with Secretary Kennealy and MassTech Collaborative."
Organizations interested in applying to the Collaborative R&D Matching Grant learn more at https://masstech.org/collaborative-research-matching-grant-program-solicitation.
About the Innovation Institute at the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative
The MassTech Collaborative is a quasi-public economic development agency that strengthens the competitiveness of the tech and innovation economy by driving strategic investments, partnerships, and insights that harness the talent of Massachusetts. The Innovation Institute is the division of MassTech that advances its core mission of innovation and cluster growth across the Commonwealth. Created in 2003, the Innovation Institute intervenes in the economy in the following four ways:
- Conducts research and analysis that improves the state’s understandings of unmet needs and opportunities in the innovation economy;
- Serves as convener and key strategic broker on the landscape;
- Manages high-value projects on behalf of the Commonwealth; and
- Makes strategic investments in support of innovation-based economic development.
For more information, visit https://innovation.masstech.org/.