Open House Showcases Robotics for Rehabilitation

Jun 26 2014 | By Melanie A. Farmer | Photo: Jane Nisselson

Sunil Agrawal is melding robots and humans, all in an effort to rehabilitate various patient groups like stroke victims and assist those with debilitating motor functions like children with cerebral palsy. Agrawal, professor of mechanical engineering, hosted his laboratory’s open house this spring, showcasing his team’s innovative work in robotics to about 100 attendees from Columbia Engineering, the Columbia University Medical Center (CUMC), and peers from local hospitals and research facilities.

C-ALEX, a cable-driven lightweight exoskeleton designed for rehabilitative gait training.

“It is very satisfying to see how robotics technology can help real patients,” says Agrawal, who devised his first gait training exoskeleton, ALEX, as part of an National institutes of Health (NIH) Bioengineering Research Project. For the past 10 years, Agrawal and his collaborators have used ALEX to successfully train the gait of more than 20 chronic stroke patients. Additionally, more than 200 healthy young adults have participated in different studies pertaining to the human-machine interface, neuroscience of human learning, and closed-loop controllers for gait retraining.

Agrawal’s research is largely interdisciplinary; he constantly interacts with clinicians, medical researchers, and physical therapists to understand their intervention needs and how robotics can help fulfill certain gaps in the field of rehabilitative medicine. He is currently developing a sister robotics laboratory within the Department of Rehabilitation and Regenerative Medicine where his innovative robots will be used for patients and clinical research. This laboratory will be housed in CUMC’s Harkness Pavilion.

“Most therapeutics and interventions today rely on experiences of the clinicians and are qualitative,” notes Agrawal. “Robots are well suited for precise and repetitious tasks while providing quantitative data on the progress of patients over time. Our ‘a-ha’ moment is when we see a patient improve their function after training with our devices.”

Agrawal directs the ROAR/ROSE lab at the Engineering School, short for Robotics and Rehabilitation Laboratory and Robotic Systems Engineering Laboratory, respectively. In addition to ALEX, he leads a number of different research projects funded by the NIH, the National Science Foundation (NSF), and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), including cable-driven leg exoskeletons and robot-enhanced mobility applications for children. The exoskeleton robotic applications are designed to help professionals deliver enhanced recovery and rehabilitative care, while making life easier and safer for the users of the technology.

At the spring Open House, Agrawal’s collaborators and students demonstrated several devices that have been developed to rehabilitate and assist people in accomplishing everyday tasks. ALEX III, the latest version of the bilateral exoskeleton designed for human gait training, was one of the intelligent machine models demonstrated at the Open House. Its design was conceptualized with flexibility and transparency in mind. When used, most of the mechanical components are located behind the wearer’s legs, enabling the person to freely swing his or her arms while walking. The device, explains Agrawal, is being used for physical rehabilitation of gait in impaired individuals, such as with stroke or spinal cord injury as well as to study the motor control system in unimpaired people.

He and his team are busy developing next-generation robots for gait training of neurologically impaired adults and children, and have designed new pelvic-tethered assist devices to quantify and retrain elderly patients with balance disorders. “Our short-term goal is to clinically test these and show the impact of this useful technology,” says Agrawal.

In 2013, Agrawal joined the Columbia Engineering faculty from the University of Delaware where he was a professor of mechanical engineering for nearly 15 years and served as director of the University’s Mechanical Systems Laboratory and Rehabilitation Robotics Laboratory. This fall, Agrawal, who currently advises 24 undergraduate and graduate students, intends to teach the Machine Design Course, which helps students conceptualize, automate, fabricate, and computer-control a working machine, giving them literally hands-on experience in the exciting field of robotics.