A $1.5 million grant is enabling engineers at UC Riverside to pioneer robotic clothing to mitigate cerebral palsy symptoms among children.
Cerebral palsy causes children to lose control of their arm movements and is the most common form of severe physical disability in childhood. Funded by the National Science Foundation, the project aims to combat debilitating cerebral palsy symptoms through innovative, low-cost robotic clothing.
Advancing assistive robotics
Conventional robotics are too rigid and uncomfortable to be employed as assistive technology on the human body. To overcome this, the team is developing devices from soft textiles that are better suited for natural limb functioning.
Jonathan Realmuto, UCR assistant professor of mechanical engineering and project lead, commented: “Hard materials don’t interact well with humans. What we’re going for by using materials like nylon and elastic are essentially robotic garments.”
These materials will comprise sealed, airtight compartments that can inflate to become temporarily rigid, providing more force to perform movements.
Realmuto explained: “Let’s say you want to flex the elbow for a bicep curl. We can inject air into specially designed bladders embedded in the fabric that would propel the arm forward.”
In addition to designing robotic clothing, the project will also innovate algorithms that teach the machine to predict the movements the user wants to perform.
“One of the critical challenges in providing movement assistance is interpreting a person’s intention. We want a ‘volitional controller,’ so the robot behaves in terms of what the human wants to do,” Realmuto said.
The controller will employ an array of small sensors within the sleeves to detect small voltages emitted by the muscles when they contract; this voltage data will then be fed into an algorithm that will be trained to interpret the cerebral palsy patient’s movement intentions.
By utilising commonly available materials, the robotic sleeves will have a low cost, with the team aiming to reduce the use of sophisticated electronics to mitigate spending further.
Empowering children with cerebral palsy
The project is partnering with the Children’s Hospital of Orange County, whose paediatric movement disorder clinic patients will help test and refine the prototype technology. The team will also hold annual meetings at the hospital during the project’s four-year lifespan, which will include the patients and their families and occupational therapists to gain feedback about the robotic clothing.
“By centring stakeholders in our design process, we hope to develop a product that truly works for them,” Realmuto said.
In addition to mitigating cerebral palsy symptoms, the team is hopeful that the technology can benefit entire communities and eventually be used for other applications and populations, such as geriatric patients and other adults with movement issues.
Realmuto concluded: “If we can help kids brush their own teeth, pour water or open doors, actions that others take for granted, it’s a huge win for them. But it’s also a win for their families and caretakers. Our technology is universal.”