Project aims for prosthetic that senses like real hand

February 10, 2015

One of the major challenges in prosthetic technologies is to create an artificial hand capable of the same tactile sensations and motion perception as a natural hand.

Arizona State University neurophysiologist Stephen Helms Tillery will have an opportunity to contribute to progress toward that goal. Download Full Image

He will be a member of one of the teams involved in a nationwide research collaboration to pursue technological advances to produce systems and devices enabling users to control and sense a prosthetic hand through the same neural signaling pathways used by intact hands and arms.

Called HAPTIX (Hand Proprioception and Touch Interfaces), it is the first program for the new Biological Technologies Office of the Defense Advanced Research Agency (DARPA), a part of the U.S. Department of Defense.

DARPA is undertaking the project as part of its mission to provide support for wounded U.S. military veterans, but the program, if successful, is expected to have significantly broader impacts on the development of next-generation prosthetic technologies.

“We want to make a prosthetic hand that can do all the amazing things a normal hand can do,” said Helms Tillery, an associate professor in the School of Biological and Health Systems Engineering, one of ASU’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering.

That means finding ways for a prosthetic hand to be able to sense the shape, texture and weight of whatever it touches, and to be able to perceive how much or how little pressure or force is needed to grasp, lift or manipulate objects, he said.

The teams will work to help figure out how a prosthetic hand could do all of this wirelessly, so that it can be operated solely with internal controls. ASU researchers will then focus on testing the use of the system’s performance in providing tactile sensation.

Doing that will require developing a system of electrodes, complete with intricate circuitry and tiny microprocessors, that provides a power source and an interface between the electronics and the body’s nervous system – a system that will be implanted into the forearm at a point where a removable prosthetic hand would attach.

The goal is to establish a reliable and accurate communication loop between electrodes and nerves.

“We have to develop algorithms for taking the signals to control motion that come from the brain and translating them into something that conveys information to the nerves that interact with an implanted interface system,” Helms Tillery explained.

For an artificial hand to be capable of giving the user perceptions of weight, shape, texture, hardness or softness, researchers must solve the challenge of “getting that sensory information to go from the prosthetic hand and through the interface system to the nervous system and to the brain, and back to the hand,” he said.

Helms Tillery will collaborate directly on the project with Nerves Incorporated, a Dallas-based manufacturer of electromedical equipment. The team will be led by Edward Keefer, a neurophysiologist and engineer at Nerves Inc., and joined also by Jonathan Cheng, a plastic surgeon whose expertise includes reconstructive hand surgery.

Helms Tillery will share information and research results regularly with members of the other teams in the HAPTIX program network.

An ASU postdoctoral researcher and two biomedical engineering doctoral students are expected to make up Helm Tillery’s lab team.

The first phase of DARPA’s HAPTIX program endeavor is planned to last a year and a half, which includes time for testing prototypes of the new prosthetic hands with selected amputees.

Helms Tillery said prototypes will be equipped with data-collection devices enabling researchers to assess how the neural interface system is functioning and how users are adapting to the new prosthetic hand technology.

Read more about the HAPTIX program and the DARPA news release about the program's Phase 1 project.

Joe Kullman

Science writer, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering


ASU workshop explores potential of robotics used to rehabilitate

February 10, 2015

Organizers of the first Rehabilitation Robotics Workshop at Arizona State University in 2013 hoped it would generate at least enough interest to justify a second workshop two years later.

Favorable reactions from many who attended the first event led to a change of plan. A second workshop was organized for the following year. Santello robotic hand Download Full Image

The events have resulted in participants forming research collaborations and teaming up to develop grant proposals – proposing ideas for taking new directions for studies, research and technology development in the field, said ASU professor and neurophysiologist Marco Santello.

“We got overwhelmingly positive feedback from the people who came to speak and present, from faculty and from students,” said Santello, who is director of the School of Biological and Health Systems Engineering, which presents the event.

The workshop is supported by a Virginia G. Piper Charitable Trust Health Solutions grant to the school, which is one of ASU’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering.

Now, a third ASU Rehabilitation Robotics Workshop is scheduled for Feb. 13 and 14 at the Memorial Union on ASU’s Tempe campus, with the expectation that it will remain an annual event for the foreseeable future.

The first two workshops attracted several leading experts in the booming field of applying robotics technologies to improving devices and systems for physical rehabilitation therapy.

ASU’s workshop explores the state-of-art robotics technologies being used in health care as well as the challenges in advancing rehabilitation robotics, and looks at a multitude of areas in science and engineering that are increasingly studying the potential of human-robot interaction.

“Rehabilitation robotics is drawing more people from various fields, from different branches of engineering, from physiologists, physical therapists, medical clinicians and others,” Santello said. “So interest should be high enough that we can continue to do the workshop every year."

In addition to researchers from universities and other research institutions, the first two events have drawn a notable number of industry representatives.

“It’s a strong indicator the workshop will remain viable,” Santello said.

For students, it offers a valuable opportunity.

“They are able to meet and talk to leading experts, something they would rarely be able to do otherwise,” he said.

The event is free and open to the general public, but registration is required. Visit the workshop website for more information.

This year’s Rehabilitation Robotics Workshop speakers include:

Hunter Peckham, Donnell Institute Professor and director of the Functional Electrical Stimulation Center at Case Western Reserve University. Expertise: rehabilitation engineering neuroprostheses.

David Reinkensmeyer, professor in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering and the Department of Biomedical Engineering at the University of California, Irvine. Expertise: neuromuscular control, motor learning, robotics and rehabilitation.

Paulo Bonato, director of the Motion and Analysis Laboratory at the Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital. Expertise: rehabilitation engineering, biomechanics of movement, electromyography, wearable technology and robotics.

Andrew Gordon, professor of movement science at Columbia University. Expertise: sensorimotor control, rehabilitation, constraint-induced movement therapy and bimanual training.

Jose Luis Contreras-Vidal, professor of electrical and computer and biomedical engineering at the University of Houston. Expertise: reverse engineering the brain, rehabilitation robotics, neural interfaces, neuroprosthetics and powered wearable exoskeletons.

Venkat Krovi, associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, and gynecology and obstetrics at the University of Buffalo. Expertise: lifecycle treatment (conception, design, modeling, analysis, control, implementation and verification) of articulated mechanical and mechatronic systems for enhanced manipulation tasks.

Vivian Mushahwar, professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation at the University of Alberta. Expertise: spinal cord injury and neuroprostheses rehabilitation.

Catherine Lang, associate professor in the physical and occupational therapy program in the Department of Neurology at Washington University. Expertise: neurology and stroke rehabilitation.

Frank Sup, assistant professor of mechanical and industrial engineering at the University of Massachusetts. Expertise: design, modeling and control of electromechanical systems with a focus on rehabilitation engineering.

Elizabeth Torres, assistant professor in the Department of Psychology at Rutgers University. Expertise: cognitive psychology and computational neuroscience.

Joe Kullman

Science writer, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering