Graduate research: Robot research for rehabilitation
While still in high school, Andrew C. Erwin, a fourth-year graduate student in mechanical engineering (MECH) at Rice University, knew he wanted to use his education and technical knowhow to, as he puts it, “help people in a very direct, practical way.”
Now on his way to a Ph.D., Erwin’s resolve has translated into designing and building robotic exoskeletons for patients who have lost upper-limb strength and range of motion. For those who have suffered strokes or spinal cord injuries, this means at least partial restoration of autonomy and freedom.
“We hope to assess people at the neurological level and determine how they can best be helped by robots. Our goal is to develop hardware that is practical, reliable and useful for the patient,” said Erwin, who works in the Mechatronics and Haptic Interfaces (MAHI) Lab, directed by Marcia K. O’Malley, professor of MECH at Rice.
The lab focuses on humans physically interacting with robotic systems. One thrust of O’Malley’s research is to design haptic feedback and shared control between robotic devices and human users for training and rehabilitation.
“When I joined the lab, I started by designing a grip-force sensor that can measure the strength of a patient’s hand and arm. Since then we’ve moved on to using fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) in conjunction with haptic devices,” said Erwin, who earned a B.S. from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst in 2012 and a master’s degree from Rice in 2014, both in mechanical engineering.
“By measuring changes in brain activity of patients during neurorehabilitation, we can figure out optimal, patient-specific therapy regimens for them individually. What we have made is a parallel, three-degrees-of-freedom, MR-compatible haptic device. This device can measure and support the patient’s wrist movements during fMRI,” Erwin said.
The device, which underwent a pilot trial with healthy subjects at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, is called the MR-SoftWrist. “The process is complicated but very useful. We are able to determine exactly which areas of the brain are being activated. In this way we hope to be able to customize each patient’s rehabilitation,” Erwin said.
At the fourth-annual Screech Competition, sponsored by the Rice Center for Engineering Leadership in October, Erwin pitched his research in a 90-second Screech titled “Reducing the time and cost of rehabilitation from traumatic injury.” He expects to graduate with his Ph.D. from Rice in 2017.