New USF Robotics Lab Aims To Improve Lives By Studying How Bodies Move

Researchers at the University of South Florida have already made big strides in the quest to improve the lives of people with disabilities – and a new testing center is expected to boost their efforts.

The 3,000-square-foot metal building will give the university a dedicated space to test advanced prosthetics and assistive rehabilitation robotics technologies, says Rajiv Dubey, director of USF's Center for Rehabilitation Engineering and Technology.

Some of the devices tested at the center will be developed at USF, while others are produced by other manufacturers.

Researchers say the new testing center, estimated at around $800,000, will allow the university to go after more grants and contracts that will lead to bigger and better results for people with disabilities.

The building, which has been constructed but is not yet equipped, is conveniently located to encourage continued cross-disciplinary partnerships and collaborations between faculty and students at USF and industrial researchers, government agencies,  hospitals and people who help in the research.

"I believe that we have an absolutely unique program that relates all of these things together," says Redwan Alqasemi, an adjunct professor known for his work in robotics at USF's Center for Rehabilitation Engineering and Technology.

Too often researchers and clinicians work in isolation, explains Stephanie L. Carey, research coordinator at USF's Motion Analysis Laboratory.

While an engineer is in one place trying to figure out solutions, a clinician is working somewhere else trying to get a device to work for a person with disabilities, she says. A clinician may know that a device doesn't function properly, but has no clue how to improve the design.

Uniting Disciplines

USF's interdisciplinary program brings together people with different skill sets, experiences and perspectives.

 "When they're working together – engineers and clinicians -- they can create projects, optimize them, get some feedback, go back and adjust them," Alqasemi says. "The relationship goes back and forth."

The new building is designed to offer easy access to people with disabilities.

It also has designated waiting and changing areas for people taking part in the research. These facilities, lacking at the current Motion Analysis Laboratory, are important in creating the right setting for this type of work, Dubey says.

The Motion Analysis Lab will have larger quarters in the new building, allowing university researchers to study a broader range of motions, says M. Jason Highsmith, a visiting assistant professor at USF's School of Physical Therapy & Rehabilitation Services.

Most of the testing done in the current lab has involved movements that can be done in one place, such as sitting, standing and rowing, says Highsmith, known for his work in developing a kayak hand for amputees.

In the new lab, researchers will be able to study lower extremity motions involved in activities such as running, climbing stairs, walking up a ramp and crossing a gravel path. The testing center will be equipped with a safety harness to ensure that research subjects are kept safe during testing.

Researchers also will be able to analyze upper extremity movements involved in turning a doorknob, lifting a box, putting away dishes and other everyday activities that can be daunting for people with disabilities.

"We want to mimic things that are going on at home, at YMCAs, at churches," Highsmith says.

Detecting Movements

People coming to the Motion Analysis Lab to take part in research are fitted with reflective markers, which have an adhesive backing and look like little balls. The markers are attached to specific parts of the body, depending on the type of study being done.

An eight-camera Vicon 4D motion capture system uses infrared lights to detect the reflective markers and to record the movements for analysis.

"We can look at various functions of the prosthesis to determine which are best for which types of people," Carey says.

Researchers can also test whether devices live up to manufacturers' claims. Sometimes the device does, but the person with a disability hasn't maximized its capacity.

Being able to prove an intervention works is important to qualify for insurance payments, which is becoming an even more important issue in this era of healthcare reform, Highsmith says.

Researchers are interested in finding ways to help people with disabilities do as much on their own as possible, says Alqasemi, who, along with Dubey and USF's Emmanuel Donchin, helped develop software and hardware for a wheelchair mounted robotic arm that is controlled by brain waves.

Researchers hope that this device will one day enable people who cannot move – such as those with locked-in syndrome, or with amytrophic lateral sclerosis – also known as Lou Gehrig's disease – to be able to capture their P-300 brain waves to direct a robotic arm to obey their commands.

"Independence is a huge issue," Alqasemi says.

USF is engaged in multiple efforts aimed at providing people with disabilities effective devices to help them return to work, handle daily routine and have a better quality of life.

B.C. Manion is a freelance writer working out of her 1932 bungalow in South Seminole Heights. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.

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