A robotic cane assists those with impaired mobility

via Columbia Engineering

Device acts as a cane-like mobile assistant to provide light-touch to help the elderly and others with impaired mobility

By adding electronics and computation technology to a simple cane that has been around since ancient times, a team of researchers at Columbia Engineering have transformed it into a 21st century robotic device that can provide light-touch assistance in walking to the aged and others with impaired mobility.

A team led by Sunil Agrawal, professor of mechanical engineering and of rehabilitation and regenerative medicine at Columbia Engineering, has demonstrated, for the first time, the benefit of using an autonomous robot that “walks” alongside a person to provide light-touch support, much as one might lightly touch a companion’s arm or sleeve to maintain balance while walking. Their study is published today in the IEEE Robotics and Automation Letters.

“Often, elderly people benefit from light hand-holding for support,” explained Agrawal, who is also a member of Columbia University’s Data Science Institute. “We have developed a robotic cane attached to a mobile robot that automatically tracks a walking person and moves alongside,” he continued. “The subjects walk on a mat instrumented with sensors while the mat records step length and walking rhythm, essentially the space and time parameters of walking, so that we can analyze a person’s gait and the effects of light touch on it.”

The light-touch robotic cane, called CANINE, acts as a cane-like mobile assistant. The device improves the individual’s proprioception, or self-awareness in space, during walking, which in turn improves stability and balance.

“This is a novel approach to providing assistance and feedback for individuals as they navigate their environment,” said Joel Stein, Simon Baruch Professor of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation and chair of the department of rehabilitation and regenerative medicine at Columbia University Irving Medical Center, who co-authored the study with Agrawal. “This strategy has potential applications for a variety of conditions, especially individuals with gait disorders.”To test this new device, the team fitted 12 healthy young people with virtual reality glasses that created a visual environment that shakes around the user—both side-to-side and forward-backward—to unbalance their walking gait. The subjects each walked 10 laps on the instrumented mat, both with and without the robotic cane, in conditions that tested walking with these visual perturbations. In all virtual environments, having the light-touch support of the robotic cane caused all subjects to narrow their strides. The narrower strides, which represent a decrease in the base of support and a smaller oscillation of the center of mass, indicate an increase in gait stability due to the light-touch contact.
“The next phase in our research will be to test this device on elderly individuals and those with balance and gait deficits to study how the robotic cane can improve their gait,” said Agrawal, who directs the Robotics and Rehabilitation (ROAR) Laboratory. “In addition, we will conduct new experiments with healthy individuals, where we will perturb their head-neck motion in addition to their vision to simulate vestibular deficits in people.”

While mobility impairments affect 4% of people aged 18 to 49, this number rises to 35% of those aged 75 to 80 years, diminishing self-sufficiency, independence, and quality of life. By 2050, it is estimated that there will be only five young people for every old person, as compared with seven or eight today.

“We will need other avenues of support for an aging population,” Agrawal noted. “This is one technology that has the potential to fill the gap in care fairly inexpensively.”

Learn more: Robotic Cane Shown to Improve Stability in Walking


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Robots to provide a steadying hand at the right time

Xiaoli Zhang, an engineer at Colorado School of Mines, is developing a gaze-controlled robotic system that works in three dimensions to enable people with motor impairments to fetch objects using eye movement. Credit: Xiaoli Zhang, Colorado School of Mines

Xiaoli Zhang, an engineer at Colorado School of Mines, is developing a gaze-controlled robotic system that works in three dimensions to enable people with motor impairments to fetch objects using eye movement.
Credit: Xiaoli Zhang, Colorado School of Mines

From the kitchen to the metro, new robotic systems designed to assist the elderly, people with disabilities

Many new robots look less like the metal humanoids of pop culture and more like high-tech extensions of ourselves and our capabilities.

In the same way eyeglasses, wheelchairs, pacemakers and other items enable people to see and move more easily in the world, so will many cutting-edge robotic systems. Their aim is to help people be better, stronger and faster. Further, due to recent advances, most are far less expensive than the Six Million Dollar Man.

Greater access to assistive technologies is critical as the median age of the U.S. population rises. Already, there is an enormous need for such tools.

“The number of people with partial impairments is very large and continues to grow,” says Conor Walsh, a roboticist at Harvard University who is developing soft robotics technologies. “For example, these include people who are aging or have suffered a stroke. Overall, about 10 percent of individuals living in the U.S. have difficulty walking. That’s a tremendous problem when you think about it.”

Walsh and other researchers funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) are working in labs across the country to ensure these technologies not only exist, but are reliable, durable, comfortable and personalized to users.

Their projects are examples of broader, long-term federal investments in robotics-related fundamental engineering and science research intended to improve the safety and well-being of people everywhere.

Blind travelers

Imagine trying to get around the busy, noisy L’Enfant Plaza transit station in Washington, D.C. without the ability to see. L’Enfant Plaza station has two levels for five different Metro lines and a third level for commuter rail service.

Commuting is stressful for anyone. But for people with visual impairments, one of the big challenges in traversing complex buildings and transit stations such as L’Enfant is that there is not enough funding to provide human assistance to those need it at all times of day and across a whole building or space, says Aaron Steinfeld, NSF-funded roboticist at Carnegie Mellon University.

“Assistive robots can extend the reach of employees and service providers so visitors can receive help 24/7 anywhere in the building,” he says.

Steinfeld and his colleagues are designing cooperative robots, or co-robots, to empower people with disabilities to safely travel and navigate unfamiliar environments. The team focuses on information exchange, assistive localization, and urban navigation — essentially finding new ways for robots and humans to interact.

Transportation in particular is a major limiting factor in the lives of people with disabilities, affecting their access to work, health care and social events, according to Steinfeld.

“For a person who is blind, navigation needs are slightly different than those who are sighted,” he says. For example, a common way to provide directions to someone who is blind is to trace a map on the person’s hand. In this case, a robot’s otherness is an advantage: The team finds that people feel more comfortable doing this with a robot than a stranger because there is no social awkwardness.

“In our experience, people who are blind are very willing to interact with a robot, to touch its arms and hands.”

In the transit station scenario, robots could provide intelligent, personalized assistance to travelers with disabilities, freeing up Metro personnel for more complicated tasks better-suited to humans.

When what you see is what you want

Another important element in robot-human interaction is that of anticipation. Assistive technologies are learning to “read” humans and respond to their needs in more sophisticated ways.

Xiaoli Zhang, an engineer at Colorado School of Mines, is developing a gaze-controlled robotic system that works in three dimensions to enable people with motor impairments to fetch objects by looking at them.

For instance, look at that smartphone. Need to retrieve it? The robot can tell when you do.

If a person intends to pick up a cup or smartphone, the natural thing to do is to look at it first. Zhang studies how people use their eyes to express intentions, then uses that data to fine-tune a system to control robotic movement through eye motion.

“We think gaze is unique because it is a naturally intuitive way for how people interact with the world,” she says. “If you’re thirsty, you look for a bottle of water. You need to look at it first before you manipulate it.”

Similar, existing systems are based on the amount of time someone looks at an item. But, as when checking the time on your watch, staring doesn’t always mean a desire to grasp. So, how does the robot know the difference?

Zhang is researching a pattern-based system that factors in more than gaze time. For example, blink rate and pupil dilation are closely related to people’s intent to manipulate an object.

More nuanced means of communications between humans and robots are necessary for them to be widely utilized in daily life.

Zhang is already looking ahead to the seamless integration of robotic assistants: “Eventually, everyone will be able to afford robots like everyone can afford computers.”

How many spin cycles can a robot survive?

For assistive technologies to fulfill their potential, they have to be the equivalent of machine washable. That is, they need to be convenient.

Walsh, whose NSF-funded projects include the development of a soft robotic exosuit and soft robotic glove — both wearable technologies to restore or enhance human movement — says affordability, comfort and convenience are important considerations in his research.

“It comes down to: ‘How do we apply as much force as possible in the most comfortable way?'” he says.

Like the other NSF-funded projects, Walsh’s technologies are about improving people’s quality of life in subtle but critical ways. He uses the analogy of a person on a swing.

“Think of someone swinging back and forth. You give them a little tap at the right time and they swing higher,” he says.

The same applies to soft robotic suits: “As someone is walking, we give them a little boost to walk farther, walk longer. If you want to go to the local store to buy something, put on a robotic suit to walk around. If you want to cook dinner, put on a glove that helps you be more dexterous.”

He focuses on minimalist, user-friendly systems that incorporate relatively new components in robotics: textiles, silicon and hybrid materials. (His lab is home to about seven sewing machines.)

Alexander Leonessa, program director of the NSF General and Age Related Disability Engineering program, says these projects are representative of how interdisciplinary, fundamental engineering research is leading to the development of new technologies, devices and software to improve the quality of life for people with disabilities.

It’s all in support of a new generation of robots — that don’t look like conventional robots — tailored to people who need assistance the most.

Learn more: Robots to provide a steadying hand at the right time



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Wearable equipment supports human motion where and when needed: Easier, Faster, Stronger, and More enjoyable

The Unplugged Powered Suit (UPS) consists of three parts: PGM (drive part), pump (air pressure for flexing artificial muscle), and pipework (transmission). ?Credit: Hiroshima University?

The Unplugged Powered Suit (UPS) consists of three parts: PGM (drive part), pump (air pressure for flexing artificial muscle), and pipework (transmission). ?Credit: Hiroshima University?

A new model of pneumatic muscle and an active type of assistive equipment incorporating this pneumatic muscle has been developed at Hiroshima University and Daiya Industry Co. Ltd., Japan. This wearable equipment, called the Unplugged Powered Suit (UPS), supports human movement without requiring any electronic devices and tanks because it employs a newly developed pneumatic muscle named Pneumatic Gel Muscle (PGM) as an actuator. The UPS improves the quality of life of not only elderly individuals but also healthy people who enjoy sports activities. The UPS will be displayed at the International Robot Exhibition 2015 in December.

To prevent injury and accidents by aging and muscle fatigue, it is important to provide with safe and easy-to-use assist devices. In traditional assistive equipment, compressors and tanks are necessary to exert sufficient power for supporting human motion. It is also expensive to maintain an assist device.

The UPS consists of three parts: PGM (drive part), pump (air pressure for flexing artificial muscle), and pipework (transmission). PGM is characterized as light and flexible, and can exert supportive power by low air pressure. The pump is equipped in the sole, and thus the driving force can be transmitted to PGM by using the human body weight. Overall, the UPS has a very simple structure, is easy to maintain, and is inexpensive.

“For example, PGM covers the articulatio coxae and the pump is equipped on the contralateral sole. This arrangement makes it possible to support human hip movement in the swing phase,” said Associate Professor Yuichi Kurita at Hiroshima University.

There are two examples of UPS application. One is to decrease muscle activity during jogging, and the other is to increase the pitch speed. To decrease muscle activation during jogging, PGM in the UPS is equipped along the musculus soleus and the pump is equipped on the ipsilateral toe. To increase the pitch speed, PGM in the UPS is equipped along the greater pectoral muscle and the pump is equipped on the contralateral toe.

“The UPS is designed to support human motion where and when needed. It also does not contain any heavy devices. This means that we can customize the UPS to the user’s particular needs such as muscle strength for athletes and rehabilitation. In the future, we can develop smarter assistive suits including wearable actuators and sensors by using our technique,” said Dr. Kurita.

Read more: Wearable equipment supports human motion where and when needed: Easier, Faster, Stronger, and More enjoyable



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A Different Approach to Assistive Technology via Wheelchair

The Scalevo wheelchair at its first public demo (Credit: Scalevo)

The Scalevo wheelchair at its first public demo (Credit: Scalevo)

Scalevo wheelchair uses retractable tracks to climb stairs

We’ve seen tracked wheelchairs before, that are able to take on steep or uneven terrain. For regular surfaces, however, wheels make more sense. That’s why a group of students from ETH Zurich and the Zurich University of the Arts are creating the Scalevo electric wheelchair, which features wheels for cruising and tracks for climbing stairs.

When on smooth ground, the Scalevo balances Segway-style on its two wheels – this setup aids in agility, allowing it to make sharp turns. Upon reaching a flight of stairs, however, its twin rubber tracks descend from its undercarriage to carry it over them. In order to keep the user level while this is happening, a set of pistons tilt the chair back relative to the tracks, compensating for the slant of the stairs.

The mechanical and electrical engineering students now have a working prototype and are planning to use it next year in the Cybathlon, an ETH-sponsored race for disabled athletes using assistive devices. There’s no word on whether or not they plan on commercializing the technology.

Read more: Scalevo wheelchair uses retractable tracks to climb stairs


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