Self-driving microscope

In 2019, I submitted a pitch to NSF SBIR program for a self driving microscope, which was invited for a full proposal. I reached out to universities and companies for a collaborative effort, but wasn’t able to find strong interest, and dropped the effort. We frequently work on ideas which get dispersed due to various circumstances, lack of financial resource, lack of collaborative partners, and often our own evolving interests. In speaking with successful executives and well-published professors, I find that the ideas they let go were still sometimes interesting, or interesting with an added twist, or more feasible than first appeared. Below is some material from the initial pitch for a self-driving scanning electron microscope.

SEM Bot, a software which operates scanning electron microscopes (SEMs) and associated detectors such as energy dispersive x-ray (EDX) detector in similar fashion as a microscopy specialist.

A safe regime for SEM Bot is in conducting parametric studies. In R&D for manufacturing processes, a similar type of sample has to be characterized for quality control or evaluation after slight changes in manufacturing conditions. The sample appearance is similar for all samples. The SEM Bot will be designed so that an engineer can show the SEM Bot the data acquisition routine once or twice, the Bot will conduct the same analysis on many similar samples.

Characterization facilities have different requirements based on whether or not they are willing to place data on a cloud. The market needs to be considered with this requirement.

During one of my pitches to a professional acquaintance, the first concern was of warranty on the SEM. Work in this area would have to be coordinated with a maintenance service provider, either with the manufacturing company or with an independent contractor.

Software packages from different SEM manufactures have vastly different interfaces. This comes into play if the automation is based on understanding the screen visually, such as by the pyautogui library. One saving grace is that all SEM machines are used with Windows operating systems, so SEM Bot development can be entirely focused on one operating system.

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