History. In 2010, the University of Michigan’s Office of the Provost approved a request under its Junior Faculty Initiative to hire four new faculty members in the field of rehabilitation robotics. Mechanical Engineering recruited a faculty member with expertise in mechatronic design of biomimetic robotic devices. Biomedical Engineering hired a specialist in brain-computer interfaces. Kinesiology brought in an expert in the biomechanics of prostheses and orthoses. Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation hired a specialist in the clinical efficacy of robotic rehabilitation devices.
In partnership with seven other established U-M faculty members, this group of 8 scientists and engineers comprise the Rehabilitations Robotics Group. By combining their experience and expertise, the Rehabilitations Robotics Group is able to undertake the large-scale collaborations necessary to more fully understand human-machine interactions and to develop new and effective devices for improving function in individuals with physical disabilities.
Mission. The core mission of the Rehabilitation Robotics Group is to facilitate a multi-disciplinary, collaborative environment that accelerates the development, testing, and effective use of devices that improve mobility and function in individuals with physical disabilities and limitations.
Uniting humans and machines to improve mobility is not an easy challenge. Major breakthroughs enabling people to improve their walking ability or movement capabilities will take some time. The interdisciplinary collaboration and scholarship of the Rehabilitation Robotics Group aims to develop new robotic devices to help people recover more quickly and better after musculoskeletal or neurological injury.
Focus. Machines are a logical choice for repetitive movement therapies. They can provide reliable and consistent assistance, either for long-term aid or for short-term practice. However, to be more effective, robotic devices need more advanced, safe, and compliant interfaces for transferring mechanical energy to human users. We need better controllers for guiding human movement and providing only minimal assistance. As the field grows, component cost and size will decrease, making in-home rehabilitation devices possible. At home therapy should, in turn, increase the frequency of therapy and reduce the need for clinic visits. However, there are many critical challenges remaining, challenges that can only be addressed through a multi-disciplinary approach.
The U-M Rehabilitation Robotics Group is taking an integrated multi-disciplinary approach to device design and testing. We have included consideration of how the human functions (clinical research); how the machine functions (mechatronics); how mechanical energy is transferred between human and machine (biomechanics); and how electrical signals can be communicated between human and machine (brain-computer interfaces).
Specifically, we believe this approach will allow us to achieve these goals:
- Create controllers that prevent the robot from “fighting” the users’ movements;
- Reduce healthcare costs by developing effective in-home therapy devices;
- Develop devices that encourage more use of affected limbs rather than compensation with unaffected limbs; and
- Reduce the weight of robotic devices.