Computer science, robotics, microelectronics: the LIRMM, 30 years of cutting-edge research

The Computing, Robotics and Microelectronics Laboratory of Montpellier (LIRMM) is celebrating its 30th anniversary. Mixed Research Unit having for main supervision the University of Montpellier and the National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS), it benefits from secondary supervision – the University of Perpignan and the Paul Valery Montpellier University – and partnerships with the Inria. A scientific day celebrates this anniversary this September 30

LA TRBUNE – In what context was the LIRMM born?

Philippe POIGNET, director of LIRMM – The LIRMM is the result of the merger of two Montpellier laboratories: the Computer Science Research Center and the Automation and Microelectronics Laboratory of Montpellier. Under the impetus of Professor Durante and a few other personalities, the laboratory was labeled as a Research Unit, with already at the time the three disciplines of today: computer science, robotics and microelectronics.

How many researchers currently at LIRMM, for what operating budget?

The laboratory brings together 160 researchers and teacher-researchers, but also around forty administrative and technical staff, more than 150 doctoral and post-doctoral students, i.e. a total of nearly 400 people. Divided into three departments with 21 research teams, the laboratory has its own contractual resources, such as national and European research projects or industrial contracts, with an annual budget of 6 million euros excluding supervisory grants (10% of the budget, editor’s note).

In thirty years, what have been the most significant advances resulting from the LIRMM?

As I often say, the LIRMM was a forerunner on a number of topics that are still topical: data science, software engineering, design and control of new robots, design and testing of integrated circuits and embedded systems… With the difference that these themes are not treated today with the same mathematical tools or do not use the same technologies.

What spectrum of activities does the IT department cover?

The department alone brings together more than a hundred researchers and teacher-researchers and more than 70 doctoral and post-doctoral students. Its spectrum of activities is therefore very broad and globally covers most of the current research in computer science and its applications. This ranges from artificial intelligence to machine or deep learning, including bioinformatics (analysis of genomic sequences, study of the evolution of species, editor’s note), the theory of computation (graph, cryptography, Editor’s note), image processing and serious games.

In concrete terms, what type of applications has this research given rise to?

For example, we have developed, within the framework of a European project, a visualization platform for monitoring epidemiological data, making it possible to navigate through this data from a spatial and temporal point of view. In bioinformatics, the laboratory works on mathematical models that describe the mutations that can accumulate within DNA and be transmitted from generation to generation… These techniques for analyzing genetic data have, for example, been used to identify the genome of Covid virus, or the 10th HIV gene.

In terms of AI, you mention machine-learning. What developments are you working on?

In recent years, machine-learning algorithms have developed enormously and have made it possible to speed up the processing of large volumes of data. But there is still a lot to understand about how they work and to have fully reproducible and explainable results. The laboratory is therefore working on the understanding and proper use of these tools.

In the field of robotics, what are your research topics?

The department works on the design of robots and tools to control their movements or their interactions with the environment, what is called “cobotics”. It is therefore necessary to be able to model the physical interactions between humans and robots, to control them using different sensors. Underwater robotics is also one of our strong lines of research: it allows, for example, to explore the karstic networks in which fresh water circulates. This is the very meaning of the Montpellier Lez2020 project. In underwater archaeology, it is now possible to accompany archaeologists in wreck excavations located at great depths, the objective being to go up to 2,500 meters deep… We are also working on parallel robotics , in particular the tenfold cable robots which would be used, for example, in the construction, maintenance or repair of large buildings. And of course, there is the whole surgical robotics component.

You are also co-founder of AcuSurgical, a specialist in retinal microsurgery. How did you get here?

It is the result of thirty years of expertise! I am certainly a laboratory director but I still have a teaching and research activity. Between 2018 and 2020, we received funding from SATT AxLR to mature an idea for a robot assisting a surgeon operating on a retina. We worked on the development of this new robot and when the startup was created, I put together a file as a researcher to be in a scientific competition, that is to say a long-term consultant.

What other results does LIRMM have to its credit in surgical robotics and what projects are you currently working on?

There are many. I could cite our work with the University Hospital of Nîmes and the company Sterlab on a robot intended to destroy kidney stones: we have succeeded in transforming the difficult manual gesture into a robot-assisted gesture… We are currently carrying out a project in generative medicine on the treatment of burns. In 2002, we designed a robot capable of taking graft samples from severe burn victims, grafts then used to cover the wounds. Twenty years later, we have just been contacted by the Lyon startup Lab Skin, a specialist in the culture of tissue cells, to do bioprinting, that is to say, we deposit tissue cells on wounds. It is therefore necessary to be able to reconstruct the topology of the wound using 3D camera type sensors with color and depth, and to move the robot autonomously with very high precision.

On the last part, microelectronics, what are the issues?

Testing and guaranteeing the reliability of integrated circuits or embedded systems with the best possible compromise between cost and efficiency. We are also working on adaptive on-board systems that guarantee better energy efficiency. We are at the heart of the challenges of the energy transition.

What do you think is the specificity of LIRMM?

The laboratory is distinguished by its multidisciplinarity, with in particular projects that it develops with other fields such as health, biology, agronomy… This promotes the production of innovative results that are often valued. Moreover, on a national scale, the laboratory is undoubtedly one of the very first in terms of creation and support for start-ups. Over the past five years, we have supported around thirty of them.

So you play a bit of the role of an incubator?

Yes, all startups have an interaction with the lab, either in the form of a collaboration contract or because they were co-founded by people from us. I talked about AcuSurgical, but we can also mention Neurinnov, manufacturer of neurostimulation implants, Zimmer Biomet (ex-Medtech, acquired by the American Zimmer Biomet, editor’s note), manufacturer of robots for orthopedic surgery, Neocéan and its electric boat Overboat, Pradeo which develops mobile safety solutions, or Anatoscope, deeptech offering software to reconstruct and simulate the patient’s body in 3D. At the moment we host Ninja Lab which works on circuit safety, and Reeds, an underwater robotics service company.

What is your forward-looking vision?

Current projects are funded over the next three to five years. We can meet again in ten years and it is very likely that we will talk about the same subjects, with however a very strong consideration of societal and environmental issues. Because the LIRMM is also a laboratory resolutely committed to these issues through the actions it carries out, in particular on sustainable development, scientific mediation, equality and parity.