Kevin Abbruzzese drinks his water by the gallon. He then takes the plastic jugs, draws faces of cartoon characters on them and decorates the extended windowsill on the back wall of the cramped office he shares with two others at the New Jersey Institute of Technology.
The jugs represent ideas — and they serve as a constant reminder.
“We need companies to invest in these technologies,” Abbruzzese said, taking stock of the room from behind his desk.
“Otherwise, once we graduate, it just sits on a shelf.”
The three graduate students — Abbruzzese, Madeline Corrigan and Kiran Karunakaran — are developing innovative exoskeleton technologies. They all are working on different aspects of wearable robotics that would aid medical patients who have lost physical mobility for one reason or another.
For his part, Abbruzzese has developed a virtual reality platform aimed at helping physical therapy patients regain control of their upper body extremities, in which patients use wearable robotics to engage with virtual blocks.
“The idea is that we can use this to interact with virtual environments (where patients) pinch down and grab blocks and, when they come into contact with these blocks, they can actually feel them,” he said. “My responsibilities (for the project) were to develop this function that trains hand movement.”
Corrigan is also developing wearable robotics for upper extremities, though her focus to aid Duchenne muscular dystrophy patients in their day-to-day life.
“It’s progressive, so patients lose their ability to walk, typically in their teenage years, and then they begin to lose their upper extremity function, which largely affects the ability to eat and drink independently or dress yourself,” she said. “Power wheelchairs are a popular option once people can’t walk, but there aren’t a lot of options for upper extremity devices.”
The current technologies are called “passive devices,” which balance the arm with a spring to provide a sense of weightlessness to the arm. But these solutions, which offer a limited range of motion, are only temporary until the arm becomes too weak even for this assistance.
To progress beyond this issue, all three projects utilize “admittance control,” or a force control.
“Our devices are active devices instead of passive, so each of the joints on the robot has a motor on it and the motion of the entire robot is controlled by motors instead of passively,” Corrigan said. “The whole idea is that there’s a force sensor, which, for upper extremity cases, rests under the forearm and measures every force applied in every direction and torque.”
To put it simply, the applied force is then run into software that measures the force and computes where a virtual mass would move, which then dictates movement of the robotics.
“The whole idea is that you’re moving something powerful, but you’re just applying the slightest force to move it,” she said.
Next to Karunakaran’s desk is a set of robotic legs fixed to a treadmill. She has taken the same concepts and applied them to a lower-body robotic exoskeleton to help aid immobile patients in walking.
“A lot of people are trying to do a brain control interface where you record what they’re thinking and try to translate that into movement,” she said. “The problem is there is still no technology that sees the waveform in your brain that says how high or far you have to move, so we tried to figure out another way to do that.”
What Karunakaran discovered is that the hands can perform similar movements to the lower extremities and offered an alternative in giving control back to the patient.
“I use the same concept of admittance control and have two floor sensors, one on each leg at the bottom of the foot, and as the person starts to apply force in each direction, the leg starts to move in that direction,” she said. “Now I’m in the process of seeing if patients can control the way they should be able to.”
But, despite all of this innovation, there’s the real chance these advances could wind up on a shelf in the room once each research associate graduates.
“We can develop the technology and perfect it forever, but it reaches a point where we think it’s good enough to go somewhere,” Corrigan said. “But that’s not going to happen unless we work with these companies. That’s what’s going to allow us to be accessed by the people.”
For the researchers, the ability to deliver these devices to those in need is the ultimate goal, according to Corrigan.
“We aren’t experts in commercializing things or marketing them,” she said. “So, to be able to work with companies that already do that, do technology transfers and accelerate the process of getting these devices to people that can actually use them, would be great.”
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