Robotic legs, motion control: Advances exceed some human capabilities

Smart prosthetics, including robotic replacements for human legs, meet and exceed some human capabilities, and advanced sensor developments will soon close the control loop between humans and robotic limbs, said Dr. Hugh Herr, biomechatronics researcher and professor, MIT Media Lab. See photos. Link to video.


Dr. Hugh Herr, biomechatronics researcher and professor, MIT Media Lab, talks about advances in human-machine interactions that could drastically curtail the need for wheelchairs and crutches. Courtesy CFE Media, Mark T. HoskeSmart prosthetics, including robotic replacements for human legs, meet and exceed some human capabilities. Advanced sensor developments will transfer sensor signals to human nerves and back to servos, for control loop control between humans and robotic limbs, according to Dr. Hugh Herrf, biomechatronics researcher and professor, MIT Media Lab, discussing “The New Era of Human 2.0: New Minds, New Bodies, New Identities,” at Sensors Expo in Rosemont, IL, on June 7, 2011.

Herr stepped on stage naturally, with a gait that seemed a little long from knee to toe. Later in his presentation, he pulled over a chair, and showed the audience that he’s a walking robotic motion control application. He pulled up a pant leg to reveal a below-the-knee smart robotic prosthesis. (See photos).

Dr. Hugh Herr, biomechatronics researcher and professor, MIT Media Lab, shows his powered ankle-foot prosthesis with five microprocessors, battery, brushless servo motor, and sensors to measure speed. Courtesy CFE Media, Mark T. HoskeHe’s working with others at MIT and beyond to advance the study of bionics and regenerative medicine. Since a 1982 rock-climbing accident, he’s been a double amputee below the knees.

“I’m a lucky person because I can be as tall as I like. If I date a short woman, I just crank it down a little,” he said, as the audience laughed. He’s also lucky, he admitted, because the experience helped motivate him from being a D student in high school to an A student in college.

About 8 million people in the U.S. along could benefit from motion control technology to augment mobility, Herr noted, adding with some distain that soldiers with advanced prosthetics costing nearly $100,000 still need $40 crutches to get around.

“There’s no reason for that,” he said. “There’s no such thing as a disabled person, only disabled design.”

Dr. Hugh Herr, biomechatronics researcher and professor, MIT Media Lab, has an ankle-foot prosthesis that calculates joint torque and impedance. Courtesy CFE Media, Mark T. HoskeHerr also showed photos of various attachments that give him a leg up over those with human feet when rock climbing and ice climbing. He showed additional videos about how technology can extend human capabilities. (See link, below.)

He outlined other developments in motion control and robotics for humans:

  • Sensor implants in the brain allow a quadriplegic researcher to navigate within a computer using thought. Moving robotic limbs could be next.
  • Blind mice with a sensor array brain implant gain the ability to swim toward the light.
  • Sixth-sense instrumentation gives the wearer ability to gain more information from surroundings by integrating about $300 of parts including a camera, projector, and computer.
  • Future robotic prosthetics will close the loop, using I/O signals from human nerves for motion control by transferring sensor output. “Eventually, I’ll be able to feel sand on synthetic limbs again.”
  • Exoskeletons may reduce impact while running to protect joints later in life, as well as assisting those with strokes and arthritis move with a more natural gait.
  • Amputees’ nerves are being treated differently to try to eliminate phantom pain and better enable those nerves to interact with future robotic prosthetics.

Herr sees society adapting readily to these changes. A widespread disability that drastically impaired half of society 250 years ago is now seen in a different light, as many people wear designer eyeglasses or contact lenses to correct and enhance vision, even beyond 20/20.

- Mark T. Hoske, CFE Media, Control Engineering, - See video. Herr said: “In the next decade, we will have artificial legs that are better than human legs for running.”

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