When we think of automated robots becoming a bigger part of society, we tend to think of driverless cars and the production line robots that will build them.
However, robots aren’t just being developed to replace humans. Engineers are also working with automation to enhance medical research and treatment.
At the University of California Irvine, the biorobotics lab is creating robotic devices to help individuals recuperate from stroke- or accident-induced neural damage. The UC Irvine team said they are focused on incorporating automation to standard motion therapy for these neurology patients, which can be customized to each individual’s needs.
“We work spatially, looking for different areas of the brain that show up during movements that are more successful,” Sumner Norman, a graduate research in the biorobotics lab, said in a news release. “We connect patients with a robot and let them move with it. We can see when they do better and when they do worse. We look for regions of the brain that are headed in the right direction but may be difficult to access.”
Robotics created in the UC Irvine lab offer both motion assistance and motion amplification to individuals with significant nerve damage. The lab is also working with on an approach that has patients playing immersive video games where they must “walk” around in a virtual world. To follow patients' therapeutic progress, both systems document and store information that can be distributed to therapists, doctors and other researchers.
Norman said the goal of his lab’s work “isn’t to replace human healthcare professionals but to work with them.”
“The robots are a tool for recovery,” he added.
Norman is also focused on developing a sensory device that looks like a swimmer’s cap and goes on a patient's head. The device looks for brain activities that are associated with successful limb movements. Norman noted that some areas of the brain can recover after a stroke and this device is being designed to train these parts to carry out tasks that were once managed by the now-damaged regions.
“Patients are completely comfortable and at ease when using the device,” Norman said.
The UC Irvine researcher said while many medical robotics engineers are looking at generating artificial limbs, his work is different and it offers some unique difficulties.
“Rather than a replacement, it’s a rehabilitation,” Norman said. “It’s actually a harder problem, because when someone’s lost an arm, you can build a new one to go in its place. Someone who’s had a stroke still has an arm and doesn’t want to wear something robotic all the time.”
While UC Irvine researchers are busy developing the next generation of medical robots, Toyota has announced plans to put mechanized medical devices to good use right now. The Japanese technology company said it would be renting out robotic leg braces to 100 Japanese medical centres later this year.
Developed for stroke patients and other with mobility loss in one or both legs, the Welwalk WW-1000 system is a mechanized brace goes around the knee and lower leg and assists the wearer in bending and straightening their leg. Individuals first learn how to use the system by walking on a customized treadmill that tracks their natural stride while being supported by a harness.
As wearers proceed in their treatment, sensors within the brace check how they are walking, modifying the amount of support it offers. Eiichi Saito, executive vice president of Fujita Health University, told BBC News the goal of the program is to offer just enough assistance to allow for mobility and gradually drawing back that support as patients start to walk better on their own.
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