Pushing the Limits of Robotics

October 30, 2016

Designing Robots to Help Overcome Effects of Neurological Disorders

Many children are fascinated by robots, and those who recently tried out a new robotic technology in Sunil Agrawal’s lab are no different. But these children have cerebral palsy, and the robotic technology they tested helped improve their balance and mobility.

Because cerebral palsy impairs muscle tone, it can cause some children to toe walk, a condition that affects quality of life and adds to the risk of falling and sustaining serious injury. Agrawal’s Tethered Pelvic Assist Device (TPAD), a cable-driven robotic system, applies downward forces to a child’s pelvis to improve impaired walking patterns after their training with the device.

“The children underwent 15 sessions of training over six weeks with our TPAD device and consistently showed improved force interaction with the ground that enabled them to walk more stably at a faster speed and with a larger step length,” says Agrawal, professor of mechanical engineering at the Engineering School and director of the Robotics and Rehabilitation (ROAR) Laboratory and Robotic Systems Engineering (ROSE) Laboratory. He recently received the Machine Design Award from the American Society of Mechanical Engineers for his innovative contributions to robotic exoskeletons design.

Agrawal focuses his work on rehabilitative medicine, developing robotic devices and interfaces that help adults and children move better or retrain their bodies to recover their lost function.

“In our work, we use robotics to help enhance human performance by melding machine action with the human body,” he says. To accomplish that, he takes a collaborative approach to the designs of these robotic devices, working with physicians from Columbia University Medical Center as well as with researchers in mechanical engineering and robotics.

“Our robotics research requires a close interaction with clinicians, therapists, and medical professionals,” he explains. “We help them learn what our technology can provide and vice versa.” By doing so, Agrawal is able to offer functional solutions using wearable rehabilitative robotics. His designs are lightweight, durable, easy to wear, energy efficient, and able to interface well with their wearers. He is currently starting work on a new, five-year, $5 million grant from the New York State Department of Health on further TPAD research.

Aside from the TPAD, Agrawal has other rehabilitation robotic technologies that are undergoing human testing. He has designed a robotic scoliosis brace to offer a novel platform for pediatric orthopedists. And he has just begun human testing of a robotic neck brace that is designed to treat patients with head drop (common in people with ALS) or the tremors experienced by people with cervical dystonia.

Key to the success of Agrawal’s assistive robotic technology is a deep desire to make this technology meet the personal needs of people. “Our designs are novel in the field of rehabilitation robotics and reflect the needs of patients,” he says. With this technology, he is providing the fundamental and applied knowledge necessary to advance human-robot interaction.