Low cost robotic clothes for children with cerebral palsy

Low cost robotic clothes for children with cerebral palsy

UC Riverside engineers are developing low-cost robotic “clothes” to help children with cerebral palsy control their arm movements.

Cerebral palsy is the most common cause of serious physical disability in childhood, and the devices envisioned for this project are intended to provide long-term daily assistance to those who live with it.

However, traditional robots are rigid and uncomfortable for the human body. Thanks to a $1.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation, this project takes a new approach to building devices from soft textiles, which will also facilitate more natural limb performance.

Solids do not interact well with humans. What we’re after with materials like nylon and rubber is basically robotic clothing.”

Jonathan Relmoto, UCSD Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Project Leader

These garments will have sealed areas that can bulge out, make them temporarily stiff and provide strength for movement.

“Let’s say you want to bend the elbow in order to work the biceps,” Realmuto said. “We can inject air into a specially designed bladder embedded in the fabric that will push the arm forward.”

The project will focus not only on building the robot, but also on developing machine learning algorithms to predict which movements the wearer wants to perform.

“One of the critical challenges in providing assistance with movements is interpreting a person’s intent. We want a ‘voluntary controller,’ so the robot acts in relation to what the human wants to do,” said Realmuto. The project team also includes UCR Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering Jun Sheng.

One aspect of this controller is the use of a variety of small sensors on the sleeves to detect the small voltages that the muscles generate as they contract. These sensors will feed the voltage data into an algorithm that will be trained to extract the wearer’s intent from it.

The use of widely available textiles, rather than traditional solids, is likely to lower the cost of sleeves. In addition, the team intends to minimize the use of sophisticated electronics, which will also help reduce overall costs for patients.

Developed in partnership with Children’s Hospital of Orange County, this project will help patients from the Pediatric Movement Disorders Clinic test and improve prototypes.

In addition, the research team will hold annual meetings at the hospital for each of the four years of the project. These meetings will involve patients and their families, as well as occupational therapists, and extract their feedback on the technology as it evolves.

“By focusing our stakeholders in our design process, we hope to develop a product that truly works for them,” said Realmuto.

The development team sees this work as enhancing independence not only for pediatric patients themselves, but also for entire communities.

“If we can help children brush their teeth, pour water or open doors, actions that others take for granted, that is a big win for them,” Realmuto said. “But it is also a gain for their families and their caregivers.”

Although this project focuses on children with movement disorders, this technology could eventually be used for applications and other populations, including elderly patients and other adults with movement problems.

“Our technology is global,” Realmuto said.

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