New research in robotics to help with stroke rehabilitation, guide wheelchairs, and assist children with Autism Spectrum Disorder are some of the projects now being funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and its National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering (NIBIB). This is the third year that the NIH has participated in the Interagency National Robotics Initiative to support research to develop innovative co-robots, which work cooperatively with people. Other participants are the National Science Foundation, NASA, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Fig. 1 – Conceptual eMbot design featuring three cylinders spanning the shoulder and a single cylinder spanning the elbow and wrist. (Credit: Richard Brent Gillespie, University of Michigan)
“Technology is becoming more and more adaptable in all areas of our life, from GPS in cars to speech recognition technology on smart phones,” said Grace Peng, PhD, NIBIB program director of Rehabilitation Engineering. “We hope to encourage robotics researchers to think of new ways to apply their technology in the realm of health care.”

Wearable Therapeutic Exoskeleton

Recovering movement of upper limbs following a stroke can be difficult and frustrating for patients. Research shows that repeated use of the affected arm in goal-directed, purposeful movements after a stroke can help promote recovery. This type of therapy is generally well tolerated and successful when supervised by therapists. This goal of this project at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, is to extend therapy into the home by providing patients with a lightweight robotic exoskeleton that can be placed on an affected arm and provide the kind of therapeutic guidance found at a rehabilitation center. (See Figure 1)

Automatic Robotic Wheelchair

A project at Stevens Institute of Technology, Hoboken, NJ, hopes to provide a solution for elderly and disabled patients with limited hand functionality and who rely on wheelchairs for mobility. Researchers there are working to develop a system and chair that can be controlled by the user’s head movements and can adapt to the individual user. A camera placed on glasses worn by the user can capture head movements designed to control the chair as well as adapt to individual users by gaining information as the patient responds to various situations in natural ways (such as turning their head as their attention shifts).

The aim of this project is to allow the robotic wheelchair to operate almost completely autonomously and only ask for human control on an as-needed basis, as well as learning from the human controls so as to reduce the necessity for human participation in the future.

Music-Based Robotic Stimuli for Children with Autism

Many new technologies for children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) have been developed and demonstrated the possibilities of robotic applications in therapy, but most rely on speech interaction and task-based scenarios. To more effectively stimulate the various emotional and social interactivities of children with ASD, researchers need incorporate multiple types of stimuli. Some recent studies have shown improvements in social skills among children with autism who were encouraged to improvise with musical instruments or song. This project, at New York Institute of Technology, New York, NY, aims to develop a music-based system that will help children with ASD interact with a robotic companion in a safe and natural manner. The researchers say that this has the potential to help develop innovative interventions for ASD.