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Robotic Exoskeleton Developed for Upper-Body Rehab

Ashish Deshpande

Ashish Deshpande (University of Texas, Austin)

1 May 2015. A robotic device that helps recover upper-body functions for people with neurological or spinal injuries is being developed by engineers at University of Texas in Austin. Developers of the exoskeleton, called Harmony, plan clinical trials of the device later in 2015.

Harmony is a project of UT-Austin’s Rehabilitation and Neuromuscular Robotics Laboratory led by mechanical engineering professor Ashish Deshpande. He and a group of graduate students designed Harmony to provide individualized rehabilitation for the upper body that fits the individual’s physical size, and also collects data to adjust patients’ rehab programs as they make progress. The system aims to develop strength and coordination, to restore motor skills needed for day-to-day living after injuries that require rehab.

Harmony connects to three areas on each side of the upper body with 14 actuators to allow for a wide range of motion. The device pays particular attention to the shoulder, where complex and coordinated movements are necessary to restore normal scapulohumeral rhythm, the rotational action of the shoulder joint.

In addition, Harmony has built-in sensors that collect data 2,000 times each second. The data are then fed back to the device to provide individualized interactions with the patient, as well as offering guidance for clinicians and therapists. As a result, force administered by Harmony can be adjusted to feel almost weightless to the patient. But the system’s software can also be programmed to have the device exert increasing pressure or difficulty, requiring more force by the patient to build strength and coordination.

Deshpande and colleagues built the first exoskeleton prototypes in 2011, then collaborated with the company Meka Robotics in 2013 to create the first working model. The developers foresee enhancing the system to allow for an screen or gaming-type environment to allow for instructional routines.

In the meantime, the UT-Austin team plans human clinical trials of Harmony with 20 to 30 healthy volunteers, beginning recruitment in June 2015. Following this initial trial, the team plans to test Harmony with patients in rehabilitation from stroke or spinal cord injuries, compared to conventional rehab.

In the following brief (49 second) video, team members demonstrate and tell more about the Harmony system.

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