While they don’t look like R2-D2 or the other robotic stars of the silver screen, assistive robotic devices being designed to help stroke and spinal cord injury survivors with rehabilitation could be an even bigger hit. The prototypes are armed with a scissor-like claw that can perform a variety of functions, including moving a glass of water or snatching a pen off the floor.

The project is the brainchild of two faculty members in the Laboratory of Adaptive Technologies at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston who have recruited college engineering students to turn the teachers’ vision into a reality.

The idea is to build assistive robotic devices that can perform everyday tasks for patients recovering from diseases affecting their motor skills and to give the patients exercise in the process.

“This is brand new,” says Lex Frieden, who heads the lab at The University of Texas School of Health Information Sciences at Houston, and is a senior VP at TIRR Memorial Hermann. “We are using the creative genius of young people to help stroke patients continue their rehabilitation at home.”

Frieden and Catherine Ambrose, PhD, an associate professor of orthopedic surgery at The University of Texas Medical School at Houston, are coaching student design teams at The University of Texas at Austin and Rice University who have been working on the project since the fall semester.

Rice engineering students Christine Moran, Claire Krebs, Beth Rowan, David Meyer, and Austin Mueller designed and built an assistive robotic device as a senior project at Rice’s new Oshman Engineering Design Kitchen.

Some 700,000 people annually in the United States are confronted by new or recurrent strokes, and many have to relearn everyday tasks such as picking up a piece of fruit or opening a cabinet.

This is where assistive robotic devices can help. To manipulate the remote-controlled robots, patients use an instrument called an exoskeleton, which is attached to one of the patient’s arms. Caregivers can gradually increase the range of motion and amount of exertion required to operate the devices in order to help patients build endurance.

Sudhir Shenoy and his student colleagues in the Department of Biomedical Engineering at UT Austin, which is also affiliated with The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center and the UT Health Science Center at Houston, have outfitted their robot with a video camera so it can be dispatched to other rooms of a house to retrieve items.

“Our robotic device replicates fine motor skills such as lifting a glass, as opposed to gross motor skills which could involve moving something heavy,” says Shenoy. Because many patients would have a hard time changing batteries, the UT Austin team has built its prototype so it can dock with a recharger that is already plugged into an outlet, Shenoy says.

Before they started the project, the students, who will be getting class credit, conferred with people recovering from stroke or spinal cord injuries at TIRR Memorial Hermann and with the PTs who care for them.

A faculty adviser for the Rice team, Marcia K. O’Malley, PhD, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at Rice, designed the exoskeleton system that is used to drive the Rice robot.

The prototypes are equipped with lifts designed to raise the grabber to the height of a table for easy access to glasses, utensils, and dishes, which is no easy task. Their maximum height is around 3 feet. The Rice prototype rolls on treads similar to those you would see on a tank and is less than 20 inches tall and about 18 inches by 18 inches at the base.

Once the projects are completed, tests are planned to see how well the prototypes work on patients in a real world environment.

[Source: The University of Texas, Health Science Center at Houston]