NASA research comes down to earth

UCLA neurophysiologists and NASA space engineers are creating a robot-like device that could help rehabilitate thousands of people with spinal cord injuries.

The device, still in the development phase, will look like a treadmill with robotic arms, and will be fitted with a harness to support the patient’s weight. The arms resemble knee braces that attach to the patient’s leg, guiding the legs properly on the moving treadmill.

The robotic stepper device is one of several projects in the Neural Repair Program at the UCLA Brain Research Institute and JPL. UCLA neurologists now believe that by using the robotic stepper device in rehabilitation, some patients who are functionally confined to wheelchairs may be able to learn to walk again, and those with limited movement could improve their level of walking.

‘We are developing a prototype robotic stepper device that when complete will be used as part of rehabilitation that can potentially help some people now wheelchair-bound take their first steps,’ said Jim Weiss, program manager for collaborative neural repair at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. ‘This system can do the work of four therapists and help monitor a patient’s progress in a controlled manner.’

NASA and UCLA researchers are quick to emphasise that the robotic stepper is still in development and is not yet ready for use in rehabilitation. However, the device could be part of clinical trials at UCLA in about three years.

Unlike therapists who only sense and observe a patient’s progress, the robotic device takes precise measurements of the person’s force, speed, acceleration, and resistance, counting each step the patient takes.

These precise measurements help therapists monitor the day-to-day progress of their patients and provide valuable information on the effectiveness of the therapy. These measurements will be used by a control system that can assist the robotic stepper device as needed.

JPL robotic engineers have worked alongside therapists to develop the device, which has highly sensitive sensors that collect up to 24 different data readings of the patient’s activity. The device, connected to a computer, displays the information on the screen for the therapist to monitor.

According to Weiss, this same device could also someday be useful to astronauts and help them walk safely after prolonged periods in space, such as extended missions on the International Space Station.

JPL and UCLA are actively pursuing efforts to commercialise the robotic system.

‘Many technologies developed at NASA for space exploration have tremendous medical applications,’ said Dr Antal Bejczy, senior research scientist and lead engineer on the robotic stepper device at JPL. ‘We can provide practical solutions based on our engineering experience.’