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This Week in Research: Wheelchair-mounted robotic arm

This Week in Research is a new column from Oracle columnist Joe Polito that profiles USF research projects. USF is one of the country’s top 63 public research institutions and Polito takes a brief look behind a few of the most interesting projects.

For this installment, Redwan Alqasemi, adjunct professor for the Department of Mechanical Engineering, invited me into a lab called the Center for Assistive and Rehabilitation Robotics Technology.

In the Engineering Building’s (ENG) basement, Alqasemi and his fellow researchers meet up to discuss their project – a wheelchair equipped with a multi-interface robotic arm.

Upon entering ENG 19A, I felt like I had walked into R2-D2’s storage closet. Robotic claws, parts and arms were scattered across tables and lined the shelves.

Other than Alqasemi, the researchers were all students. Mechanical engineering senior Megan Malek and sophomore Blair Simons stood near wheelchairs while Christine Bringes and Jonathan Jones, seniors majoring in computer science, sat with laptops.

Before I could ask a question, the robotic arm in front of me began to twist and extend. I looked for someone holding a remote control or joystick, but saw no such device.

“He’s controlling it with his eyes,” Alqasemi said.

A camera mounted on top of Jones’ laptop tracked his eye movement. Bringes’ computer had a microphone to control the arm by voice.

“The goal is to expand the options that the arm can be controlled with,” Bringes said. “Right now they have a joystick and most of them are dependent on the user’s hand or arm, which is not realistic if you need a robotic arm.”

Bringes and Jones work to perfect the computer program that makes the arm move by voice and sight. Meanwhile, Simons and Masek break off from the research huddle to tinker on a dual-monitor computer with a program that looks like an advanced Microsoft Paint.

This is SolidWorks, a 3-D, computer-aided design program these young researchers use to draw up custom parts and even test their design’s functionality.

Masek, who holds a paid position in the lab 10 hours a week, pulled up the design for a custom headrest that mounts the camera or microphone in front of the user.

Simons, who volunteers several hours a week just for the experience, walks Masek through the work he’s done on the headrest. When they finish, they take their design just down the hall to “the workshop.”

If the lab was R2-D2’s closet, the workshop might be his kitchen. Masek and Simons walked me down a long corridor filled with machinery stations where workers create each engineering endeavor’s ingredients.

I realized these wheeled robots were less R2-D2 and more Johnny 5 from “Short Circuit.”

Garrett Pence, a graduate student studying computer engineering, even showed me a shiny gold device called a stereo camera that resembled Johnny 5’s binocular-shaped head.

“You have two cameras built into one device and then using a triangulation – finding the same features in both cameras and calculating the angles – you can actually determine how far away the object is,” Pence said.

Elijah Klay, a graduate student with a bachelor’s in mechanical engineering, said he works on a brain-controlled interface that can be used by people with no muscle control. It uses computer vision and a cap that monitors brain activity to control the arm.

“The environment is shown to them in a grid form and they are able to focus on the grid that has their object in it and then that grid is highlighted,” Klay said. “The system will select it, run through an object recognition database and then present (the user) with options.”

The wheelchair would most benefit those with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), or Lou Gehrig’s disease. Because ALS causes gradual paralysis, the wheelchair would allow for robotic assistance in every stage of muscle movement loss.

Talking with Klay, I realized this project went far beyond mechanical engineering. It started several years ago, and a number of student researchers have worked to get it where it is today.

Preliminary research started within the School of Physical Therapy to understand the needs of disabled patients. Mechanical engineers work to perfect the hardware, while computer scientists program code to control it.

The psychology department devised the cap used to detect brain activity, providing the cherry atop this interdisciplinary sundae.

Probably the coolest aspect was that Alqasemi left these students to their work and returned to his office.

He said their research has a hierarchy, but student researchers do their work independently – free to make mistakes and progress in pursuit of learning and perhaps one day improving someone’s life.

“In this process, you end up with pretty good design, but along the way, you learn quite a bit,” Alqasemi said. “When you do things yourself and try to implement things to a customized project, you get a lot of experience.”