Thinking across Scales

Figure by Jenny Leestma

Active Projects

Balance augmentation

To build wearable devices that accommodate users throughout non-uniform terrain in the world outside of the lab, we must first understand the biomechanics of non-steady state locomotion.  Using our lab’s CAREN system, we are able to rapidly move the locomotion platform in 6 degrees-of-freedom, allowing for the application of sudden perturbations or continuous unstable environments.  We are investigating biomechanical and neural control responses during unstable tasks through the collection of motion capture, ground reaction forces, and electromyography (EMG) data.  The results from these experiments will be used to inform the design and control methods for a wearable hip exoskeleton that augments human stability during challenging locomotion tasks.

Lab Members: Jennifer Leestma, Dr. Pawel Golyski, Dr. Kristen Jakubowski
Collaborators: Dr. Aaron Young, Dr. Lena Ting

Virtual mechanical reality for muscles

Animals generate movement using the interaction of their musculoskeletal and nervous systems with the physics of their environment. Traditionally, these interactions have been studied by measuring muscle states in freely moving animals or in mathematical models. While animal experiments generate data in the context of interactions with real world physics, it is very difficult to experimentally control their neural stimulation and body properties to test hypotheses. Mathematical models on the other hand lend them selves to complete control, however are currently lacking in their ability to mimic muscle function. Thus our lab combined the best of both worlds and developed a novel ‘virtual mechanical reality’ system for muscles that allows experimenters to connect real muscle-tendon units to a motor that can be programmed to emulate a physical body and environment of choice. We’re using this technology to study how animals navigate uneven terrain, how changes in morphology affect proprioception, and how wearable robots augment the function of muscles during movement.

Lab Members: Dr. Laksh Punith, Amro Alshareef
Collaborators: Dr. Emily Abbott, Dr. Tim Cope, Dr. Lena Ting

Online optimization of exoskeleton assistance for real-world mobility

We must tune torque assistance to each user and goal to effectively enhance and understand how wearable robotics affect mobility. Currently, we are applying human-in-the-loop (online) optimization across walking performance outcomes in two ways. First, we’d like to understand if in-lab performance outcomes translate to out-of-the-lab overground walking. Second, we studying why people change their gait with age and when walking with assistance.

Lab Members: Ben Shafer
Collaborators: Dr. Aaron Young

Long-term impact of exoskeletons

The objective of this study is to investigate musculoskeletal and neuro-mechanical adaptations to frequent wearable device use. Probing impacts of both unloading and behavioral changes can give insight to ‘real-world’ adaption and feedback systems. To study structural and functional adaptations, our lab uses musculoskeletal modeling and human experiments incorporating indirect calorimetry, electromyography, ultrasonography, and 3D motion capture. Understanding effects of long-term exoskeletons use can inform user settings as well as device design and control.

Lab Members: Jordyn Schroeder, Dr. Owen Beck

Steering MTU dynamics in aging using exoskeletons

In order to prescribe exoskeletons we must first find a measurement that scales with exoskeleton assistance. Currently, we study older adults to look at changes in muscle force-length curves and tendon morphology to determine if physiology influences their metabolic response to ankle exoskeletons. This also allows us to test if exoskeleton assistance optimized for young adults work for older adults. We hope this work will lead to exoskeletons to keep older adults independent that can be prescribed based on their muscle or tendon properties.

Lab Members: Lindsey Trejo, Amro Alshareef
Collaborators: Dr. Jason Franz

Biomechanics and augmentation of manual labor tasks

Many workers in hazardous environments and other worksites must regularly perform physically exhausting tasks while wearing heavy protective gear, overexertion from which can sometimes result in debilitating physical injuries. To help increase worker performance and reduce strain on potentially injury-prone joints, we are investigating how to leverage ankle, knee, and lower back exoskeletons to provide targeted assistance during a variety of walking and lifting tasks.  The results of this work will help us to determine which exoskeletons are most useful for these kinds of tasks, and will further inform our development of more intuitive and effective exoskeleton control strategies down the road.

Lab Members: Felicia Davenport, Jennifer Leestma
Collaborators: Dr. Aaron Young, Dr. Anirban Mazumdar, Josh Fernandez, Dr. Krishan Bhakta, Raymond Kim, Christoph Nuesslein, Ryan Casey, IHMC Robotics, Sandia National Labs

Limb impedance and inter-joint coordination

Neural feedback pathways from Golgi tendon organs, which measure active contractile force, are widely distributed in the limb. The firing of muscle spindles is nonlinearly related to length and velocity, and some spindle pathways are inter-joint and asymmetric. Proportional coordination, or equal joint angle excursions, between the knee and ankle has been observed in cats in many contexts despite differences in impedance between the joints. We’re investigating how inter-joint reflex feedback modulates limb impedance and inter-joint coordination across tasks and conditions.  Understanding the role of reflex feedback in regulating limb mechanics will inform therapeutic and rehabilitation techniques for stroke and SCI patients.

Lab Members: Thendral Govindaraj
Collaborators: Dr. Richard Nichols

Past Projects

Hip muscle dynamics during locomotion

The objective of this project is to directly measure rectus and biceps femoris muscle dynamics during a variety of tasks, like walking, running, and slips. The hip joint is critical for stabilizing walking through proper foot placement and is considered the “motor” of the legs. Thus, understanding how hip muscles produce and transfer energy across the limb can provide a roadmap for the design of assistive devices that work in concert with these major muscle groups to make walking more stable and less metabolically costly. To measure muscle dynamics our lab uses B-mode ultrasound in addition to the biomechanical toolkit of electromyography, motion capture, and musculoskeletal simulations.

Lab Members: Dr. Pawel Golyski

Locomotion in deformable and dissipative terrain

The field of wearable robotics is advancing quickly, however, most devices still struggle in environments with complex terrain such as sand, snow, mud or dirt, which are challenging due to the non-linear physics of interaction between the human-machine system and the environment.  We are working to evaluate biomechanics during movement on such terrains and engineer a wearable device that uses a bio-inspired approach to characterize and augment human locomotion over complex media.  The insights gained through this project will allow us to create more robust devices and more optimal control schemes that are better suited to “real-world” use of wearable robotics.

Lab Members: Jonathan Gosyne