UMass alumnus Mike McKinley, a graduate of our Mechanical and Industrial Engineering (MIE) Department, was part of a research team from the University of California at Berkeley and suitX (a California-based robotics company designing and manufacturing medical and industrial exoskeletons) which won the $1-million prize at the international “Robots for Good” competition in Dubai, the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The winning project, chosen from an original pool of 664 entries representing 121 countries, was titled “Affordable Exoskeletons for Children with Neurological Disorders.”
Amazingly enough, recent MIE graduates were members of two of the top three teams in the “Robots for Good” contest, as Maciej Pietrusnski ’03 led a stroke-rehabilitation team which placed in the competition.
The UAE “Robots for Good” contest aims to encourage research and applications of innovative solutions in artificial intelligence and robotics to meet existing challenges in the categories of health, education, and social services. See more
The problem being targeted by the winning project is that children affected by neurological conditions such as Cerebral Palsy, Spinal Muscular Atrophy, Spina Bifida, and head trauma often develop significant disabilities, including impaired motor control. In many cases, walking becomes difficult and eventually demands the use of crutches or wheelchairs. As a result, these children do not acquire locomotion skills and consequently lose their independence.
“Our research will lead to innovative computer-controlled rehabilitative exoskeletons to promote locomotion among children,” as the UC Berkeley and SuitX researchers explained. “Our team envisions that a pediatric exoskeleton resulting from this research work should have the following novel characteristics: modularity in hardware control software that promotes the recovery of the wearer’s gait self-stabilizing technology to ensure safety.”
In children with neurological and neuromuscular diseases, independent walking is a significant rehabilitation method that must be pursued in a specific temporal window due to the plasticity of the central nervous system. This means children with neurological conditions have a small window of time to acquire locomotion skills through assisted walking rehearsals. The goal is to develop an exoskeleton that quickly promotes walking skills among children during this narrow timeframe. See YouTube video
The winning team said that “One word summarizes what we do: passion. Our mission is to develop low cost consumer bionic products to improve the quality of life for people around the world. The team has continually innovated low cost exoskeleton systems, which eventually allowed a paraplegic student to walk the podium for his graduation.” See Popular Science Magazine
As a suitX press release said: "We are honored to be the winner from among this extraordinary group of competitors," said Dr. Homayoon Kazerooni, suitX CEO. "By aiming at neurologically disabled children we can make the difference between children spending their lives in a wheelchair or actually standing and walking. We are going to use this cash prize to create a versatile and accessible pediatric exoskeleton."
The Mission Statement of the “Robots for Good” contest states that “The award intends to support innovation in the key area of artificial intelligence and robotics as part of the UAE’s commitment towards the National Innovation Strategy launched by His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum. It offers a first of its kind global platform for innovation, focusing on the practical side of this technology in areas of much relevance to the society such as health, education, and social services.” Humanity is on a journey. From the discovery of fire to the industrial revolution, we are on a constant voyage of discovery. See more (February 2016)