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Students Write App to Operate, Enhance Exoskeleton

Mobile Maestro screen

Mobile Maestro command screen (Michigan State University)

4 May 2018. A group of computer science students at Michigan State University designed a smartphone app to operate a robotic-arm exoskeleton for individuals with disabilities. The five students from Michigan State’s engineering college in East Lansing, collaborated with the companies Talem Technologies and Urban Science, both based in Detroit, to write and test the app that the team displayed at the university’s annual Design Day on 27 April.

The exoskeleton is a product of Talem Technologies, based on the X-Ar robotic arm exoskeleton made by the company Equipois, designed originally to assist in demanding industrial and construction tasks, such as welding and painting. As configured by Talem, the exoskeleton known as Maestro, assists people with conditions such as Duchenne muscular dystrophy regain the use of their arms. Duchenne muscular dystrophy is a rare genetic disease resulting in progressive muscle degeneration and weakness, primarily in the shoulders, arms, hips, and thighs. The condition affects mainly boys starting at age 3 to 5, and caused by a defective gene that fails to produce the protein dystrophin for strengthening muscle fiber and protecting muscles from injury.

Maestro helps people with limited arm functions to perform daily tasks like eating or shopping, with operating commands first given from a panel on a key fob. Initial testing with the key fob revealed practical imitations, such as users forgetting the device, even if attached to a lanyard worn around the neck. Talem then partnered with Urban Science and the university to write a smartphone app for operating Maestro.

The app, known as Mobile Maestro, is the work of Michigan State computer science students Mustafa Jebara, Dane Rosseter, Samantha Oldenburg, Alex Wuillame, and Shun Yan to operate the exoskeleton like the key fob panel, but also adds new features to the system. The app’s software, written in Apple iOS and Android versions, provides touch screen commands on the phone, much like the key fob panel. But the software also responds to voice commands, and can invoke the phone’s accelerometer and other sensors to automatically keep the robotic arms level to the floor. Still another feature added to the app allows the user to lock the robotic arms tightly to the sides of a wheelchair, to navigate through standard-size door openings.

Zach Smith, who has Duchenne muscular dystrophy, is an early adopter of the Maestro system who tested the mobile app. “I like that the app is very simple and, because it’s on my phone, it’s always in my reach if I need to adjust the arms,” says Smith in a university statement. “I believe that with the arms being powered by this app, that they’ll be able to be used to their full potential.”

Adding to the app’s value for Talem Technologies is its ability to capture usage data, which the developers and company expect to employ in further enhancements to the system.

Operating Mobile Maestro

Zach Smith operates the Mobile Maestro app (Michigan State University)

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