The research team of Meghan Huber of the Mechanical and Industrial Engineering Department and Wouter Hoogkamer of the Kinesiology Department has received a 2021-2022 UMass ADVANCE Collaborative Research Seed Fund award for their project, “Portable, robotic footwear to actively modulate foot-ground stiffness in real-time.”
These competitive seed grants aim to foster the development of innovative and equitable collaborative research projects among UMass faculty and range from $10,00 to $15,000.
As the ADVANCE program says, “Recognizing longstanding gender gaps in the academy, the National Science Foundation funds universities to build institutional transformation programs in order to advance gender equity for faculty in science and engineering. Through the power of collaboration, UMass ADVANCE cultivates faculty equity and inclusion—especially for women and minorities in science and engineering.”
As Huber and Hoogkamer explain their ADVANCE project, “Currently, the existence of tools to study, and ultimately assist or re-train, how humans manage interaction with the ground through their feet is limited. To address this gap, the overall goal of the proposed project is to design, build, and evaluate portable, robotic footwear that can actively modulate foot-ground stiffness and measure the ground reaction forces under each foot.”
According to the two researchers, impairments to upright balance and locomotion can occur in humans for a multitude of reasons, including injury, neurological disease, or even aging. When they do, one’s quality of life is often markedly reduced.
“Highly effective methods for gait and balance rehabilitation are greatly needed,” say Huber and Hoogkamer. “The control of foot-ground interaction dynamics plays a pivotal role in maintaining standing balance and locomotion during many activities of human living. Human feet serve as interfaces through which the body and ground simultaneously act upon each other and through which the body can sense the physical world around it.”
Their portable, robotic footwear is designed to answer the need for better control of foot-ground dynamics.
“The added advantage of such a portable research tool is that it can be used to study or modify human behavior not only in tightly controlled laboratory tasks, but also in a wide variety of tasks that require whole-body control in real-world contexts,” say Huber and Hoogkamer.
Huber heads the Human Robot Systems (HRS) Laboratory, whose mission is to advance how humans and robots learn to guide the physical interactive behavior of one another.
Hoogkamer is in charge of the University of Massachusetts Integrative Locomotion Lab (UMILL), which uses a comprehensive approach to study human locomotion by integrating neurophysiology, biomechanics, and energetics.
According to the ADVANCE acceptance letter, “The UMass ADVANCE team was very impressed with the innovative research design and thoughtful and equitable collaboration proposed by professors Huber and Hoogkamer. We look forward to supporting them in this work.”