International Talks

International Talks: Hongbo Wang

Hongbo Wang

“Simple tasks we do effortlessly in our daily life remain a big challenge for the most advanced prosthesis or robotic systems”

I grew up in a small rural town in Yunnan province, southwest China. The time I went to university is the first time ever I was out of my home province (a much big province though). Well, 2020 is the fifth year of my research expedition and life adventure in Europe, third year in Italy.

Upon finishing my PhD (after spending nine years in the city of Hefei), I decided to try to get out of my comfort zone, exploring new possibilities in both work and life. Almost immediately after receiving my PhD, I moved to England as a postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Leeds, where I started to work on the developments of low-cost soft tactile sensors, aiming to make surgical operations much safer by integrating touch sensors in surgical tools and instruments. During this period, I have grown and experienced many things both personally and professionally, from living abroad, to new work style. And I got to know some brilliant researchers from IIT, which eventually brought me here.

In 2017, I got an offer to join Dr. Lucia Beccai’s group in IIT to investigate multi-modal, 3D mechanical sensors for artificial touch. I have been thrilled with this new role in IIT, world-class facilities, multidisciplinary experts, the persistence in pursing cutting-edge research, and particularly the passionate and vision from Lucia and other colleagues. I made my MSCA fellowship application in the first week I arrived Italy, which was a tough moment but I made it eventually, thanks to the great efforts and support from Lucia. And our proposal received almost full mark from the evaluation panel, which is really encouraging for me. This fellowship not only provides me the great opportunities to carry on my own research work, to build the skills and to gain experiences towards an independent researcher, but also helps me a lot to expand my network in research collaborations and communications. Furthermore, I also had the opportunities to participate on a FET-Open project proposal led by Dr Lucia Beccai (PROBOSCIS) which turned out to be successful as well. Being involved in this big EU project, I will further extend my research on soft tactile sensors to fully bioinspired artifacts like the elephant trunk skin to interact intelligently with the environment, to gain more experience on interdisciplinary collaboration and team work.  

The sense of touch (tactile sensing) allows humans and animals to feel the physical world, perceiving rich information of the environment. Simple tasks we do effortlessly in our daily life like button-up our coat or tie our shoes remain a big challenge for the most advanced prosthesis or robotic systems due to the lack of tactile sensing. Researchers seeking innovations in tactile sensing have explored new materials, novel structures, advanced fabrication techniques, and novel transducer mechanisms. In my Marie-Curie Project (3D-SITS), we are investigating the overlooked inductive transducer mechanism as a new approach to develop stretchable, multimodal mechanical sensors as artificial receptors. Benefiting from this unique sensing technology, each sensing node (receptor) can be seamlessly distributed in the 3D soft robotic body (like a biological organ) to provide sophisticated touch sensory, without complicating the overall system. Following this approach, I have addressed stretchable coils to widen the range of design, and developed a computational toolbox for inductive sensors made of any 2D or 3D coil. This toolbox is fundamental to design, optimize and develop all kinds of coil-based sensors. So far, building on this toolbox, we have completed some really novel work on folding and bending angle sensors using planar coils, and we expect to publish the results soon. As next step, I would make this toolbox and all research data fully accessible and re-usable for other researchers, hoping to promote wide adoption of this technology for various applications through removing the barriers for researchers who what to utilize this sensing solutions in their own work.

My life experience in Italy is great. After a settling-in period, my wife and I started to embrace our new life in Pontedera (a quiet small town between Pisa and Florence, in Tuscany region, every facility is within 15 mins walking-distance). Not speaking Italian could cause frustrations and difficulty sometimes, but new friends and enthusiastic neighbors have made us feel like home very quickly. In the 2018 summer, our life entered into a new phase as my son was born in Pontedera, he has bought us so much joy every day. Nowadays, the word we said the most to him is “bravo“…


Hongbo Wang is a Researcher (Marie Curie fellow) at the Artificial Touch in Soft BioRobotics Line at IIT’s Center for Micro-BioRobotics (CMBR@SSSA) in Pontedera (Pisa). His current research focuses on developing 2D/3D stretchable strain and tactile sensors, and the associate design, materials, fabrication, powering, and data interpretation technologies, enabling them to be directly integrated into next generation robots (e.g. soft robots) and smart healthcare systems.

This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 Research and Innovation Programme under the Marie Skłodowska-Curie grant agreement No 799773.