Robots as Rehab Assistants: NSF Emerging Frontiers Award Supports Development of Human-Machine Cooperation

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Scientists at Emory University and the Georgia Institute of Technology will develop a “therapeutic robot” to help rehabilitate and improve motor skills in people with mobility problems.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) has awarded the scientists a $2M research grant over four years through its Division of Emerging Frontiers in Research and Innovation. The project is called “Partnered Rehabilitative Movement: Cooperative Human-robot Interactions for Motor Assistance, Learning, and Communication.”

“Our vision is to develop robots that will interact with humans as both assistants and movement therapists,” explains principal investigator Lena Ting, PhD, associate professor in the Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering at Georgia Tech and Emory University. “We expect our project to have a long-term impact on quality of life of individuals with movement difficulties, such as those caused by Parkinson’s disease, stroke, and injury, by improving fitness, motor skills and social engagement.”

The robot developed through the project could enhance, assist and improve motor skills in humans with varying motor capabilities and deficits. Other applications of the technologies and theories developed could include the design of prosthetic devices or sports robots that entertain and improve fitness. The researchers also believe their work will advance understanding of how the brain controls movement and other functions. Madeleine Hackney, PhD, assistant professor of medicine (geriatrics) in Emory University School of Medicine is co-principal investigator of the project. Co-PIs at Georgia Tech are biomedical engineering assistant professor Charlie Kemp, PhD, and assistant professor of interactive computing, Karen Liu, PhD.

The scientists will begin their work by studying how humans use their muscles to walk, balance and generate force signals with the hands for guidance when moving in cooperation with another person. They will study “rehabilitative partnered dance,” which has been specifically adapted to help improve gait and balance in individuals with motor impairments. The partnered dance is based on tactile and motor cooperation between two individuals. Prior work by Hackney showed that participation in partnered rehabilitative movement improved balance and walking skills in individuals with motor deficits due to Parkinson’s disease.

The goal is to then program a humanoid rehabilitation robot to perform a “partnered box step,” which is a defined pattern of weight shifts and directional changes, solely based on interpreting movement cues from subtle changes in forces between the hands and arms of the robot and the person.

Over the course of the project, the team will test their models of human sensorimotor coordination, cooperation and communication by demonstrating the robot’s ability to participate in the box step as a leader or follower and adapt its movements to the motor skill level of a human partner.


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