Better prosthetics: $3M to develop more natural robotic leg control

December 23, 2023
Student demonstrates using a prosthetic leg climbing a set of stairs to a platform.

A smoother experience for robotic prosthetic leg users is the aim of a University of Michigan project that has received renewed support from the National Institutes of Health. The R01 grant of $3 million will also enable the implementation of the researchers’ improved control program on a commercially available robotic prosthetic leg. 

Sit to stand, stand to walk, up and down stairs and inclines—the human body shifts among these activities almost thoughtlessly. But these transitions are hard for robots, and robotic prosthetic legs have the additional challenge of not being hooked into the human user’s central nervous system to stay synchronized with their body. 

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Choosing exoskeleton settings like a Pandora radio station

October 19, 2023
Using a simple and convenient touchscreen interface, the algorithm learns the assistance preferences of the wearer. Video: Levi Hutmacher.

Taking inspiration from music streaming services, a team of engineers at the University of Michigan, Google and Georgia Tech has designed the simplest way for users to program their own exoskeleton assistance settings.

Of course, what’s simple for the users is more complex underneath, as a machine learning algorithm repeatedly offers pairs of assistance profiles that are most likely to be comfortable for the wearer. The user then selects one of these two, and the predictor offers another assistance profile that it believes might be better. This approach enables users to set the exoskeleton assistance based on their preferences using a very simple interface, conducive to implementing on a smartwatch or phone.

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How we can better link mind and machine

July 28, 2022
A user's legs walking with a powered ankle exoskeleton on a treadmill
A user demonstrates walking with a lower-body exoskeleton. In a new study, powered exoskeleton users had trouble incorporating instructional haptic feedback cues, informing how future human-machine interaction must be designed. Photo: Brenda Ahearn/University of Michigan, College of Engineering, Communications and Marketing

A team led by University of Michigan researchers recently tested how exoskeleton users responded to the task of matching haptic feedback to the timing of each footstep. The team found that the haptic cues added mental workload, causing less effective use of the exoskeleton, and demonstrated the hurdles in future human-machine design.

“When we introduce haptic feedback while walking with an exoskeleton, we usually intend for the user to understand and maintain coordination with the exoskeleton,” said Man I (Maggie) Wu, a robotics PhD student.

“We discovered that the exoskeleton actually introduces a competing mental load. We really need to understand how this affects the user while they attempt to complete tasks.”

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U-M, Humotech partner to bring open-source bionic leg to research labs

December 16, 2021

The open-source, artificially intelligent prosthetic leg designed by researchers at the University of Michigan will be brought to the research market by Humotech, a Pittsburgh-based assistive technology company.

The goal of the collaboration is to speed the development of control software for robotic prosthetic legs, which have the potential to provide the power and natural gait of a human leg to prosthetic users.

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$1.7M to build everyday exoskeletons to assist with lifting, walking and climbing stairs

October 4, 2021
A model of the powered exoskeleton on the hip, knee and ankle joints. The modular system will be able to assist any combination of these joints, no matter the activity. Credit: Locomotor Control Systems Laboratory, University of Michigan

In an effort to bring robotic assistance to workers, the elderly and more, a University of Michigan team is developing a new type of powered exoskeleton for lower limbs—funded by $1.7 million from the National Institutes of Health.

One in eight Americans faces a mobility disability, with serious difficulty walking or climbing stairs, but a robotic solution could be far less bulky than sci-fi’s full-body suits. The U-M team plans to develop a modular, powered exoskeleton system that could be used on one or multiple joints of the legs. The three-year project will first study workers who lift and lower objects and the elderly who have lost mobility with age. In future work, the team would like to include people with other disabilities.

“Imagine adding a small motor to a bicycle—the rider still pedals, but there’s that extra power to get up hills without breaking too much of a sweat,” said project lead Robert Gregg, member of the Robotics Institute and associate professor of electrical and computer engineering.

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