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April 9, 2012
Volume 1, Issue 9

Turning Thoughts into Action

In celebration of National Robotics Week (April 7 - 15, 2012), CS Bits & Bytes is highlighting some of the amazing things that robots can do with the help of computer science.

Imagine a computer that can help you to walk. This science fiction is becoming reality today thanks to the new advancements and miniaturizations in technology.


Science Motion Video


Watch Mr. Hutto move with is bionic leg in this episode of Science Nation, produced by the National Science Foundation at http://www.nsf.gov/news/special_reports/science_nation/bionicleg.jsp.

Craig Hutto lost a leg in a shark attack during a fishing trip off the Florida Gulf Coast when he was 16 years old. At 18, he became one of the first patients to try a new type of robotic prosthetic leg being developed by a team at Vanderbilt University. What makes this particular prosthetic stand out is the sensors and the built in computing capability that predicts the user's intent. This bionic leg uses the sensors to interpret slight movements in the upper part of the patient's leg. The computer then infers what the patient is trying to do and works with the user to provide torque and movement in the right direction at the right time. This way the leg is able to stay in step with Craig. The computerized leg weighs only 9 pounds – that’s less than an actual human leg.



You can see a paraplegic walk with the exoskeleton at:http://spectrum.ieee.org/video/biomedical/bionics/ekso-exoskeleton-hits-the-market

A different type of assistive technology, exoskeltons, designed in the likeness of the hard carapaces on the outside of insects such as beetles assist a wearer's ability to control movements and complete tasks they wouldn’t be able to do otherwise. This technology helps people who are paralyzed where the nerve signals are unable to reach the limb, even though the limb and muscles are intact. Rather than replace a user's leg, the bionics provide the support and motor control. A backpack-mounted computer integrates information from motion sensors mounted on the user's arms and chest, controls the legs, and helps the individual walk and move. Robotic exoskeletons are also being designed for soldiers to help carry heavy loads across long distances.

Another group of researchers has gone a step beyond and designed a special sensor-lined cap that can process signals directly from the brain. This research group has successfully used brain signals to reconstruct movements of major joints in the leg and hand. They envision that one day signals from the cap will control robotic prosthetic limbs, motorized wheelchairs, computers, and even digital avatars. This team is also working on haptic sensors that will provide sensations of touch back to the users brain so that a person can have almost full dexterity and feel what they are doing.

Professor Contreras-Videl and Professor Marcia O'Malley

Professor Contreras-Videl (Left)

Credit: John Consoli, Univerity of Maryland.

Professor Marcia O'Malley (Right)

Credit: Tommy LaVergne, Rice University.

Who thinks of this stuff?  Jose Contreras-Vidal leads the team at the University of Maryland, Neural Engineering and Smart Prosthetics Research Laboratory that created the non-invasive, sensor-lined cap that forms a "brain-computer interface." Marcia O'Malley leads the team at Rice University in the Mechatronics and Haptic Interfaces Lab. They have developed the haptic feedback system which maps movement and sensations. Marcia holds a joint appointment as a Professor of Computer Science and as an Associate Professor in the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation Medicine. She enjoys spending time with her family, including twin boys.

Michael Goldfarb and Craig Hutto

Professor Michael Goldfarb and Craig Hutto. Credit: Vanderbilt University.

Michael Goldfarb is a Professor of Mechanical Engineering, the Director of the Center for Intelligent Mechatronics at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, TN and developer of the bionic leg. Vanderbilt has licensed the technology for the leg to a leading prosthetics manufacturer.


To learn more about National Robotics Week, please visit: http://www.nationalroboticsweek.org/.

For teachers and students interested in robotics, there are many robotics competitions for students in kindergarten though college with varying levels of experience. A comprehensive list can be found at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robot_competition.

To read more about the brain-computer interface, please visit: http://www.nsf.gov/discoveries/disc_summ.jsp?cntn_id=121203.  


Classroom Activity: Tying your Shoe

This activityshows students how a simple task like tying your shoe requires dexterity and sensory feedback from your fingers to your brain.

There are about 20 muscles and over a million nerve endings used to tie your shoe. Imagine trying to equip a bionic hand with enough motors and sensors to mimic that. This is a challenge for designers of computer controlled bionic limbs. There must be enough sensors in the robotic fingers to provide feedback to the computer and there must be a sufficient number of joints in the fingers to bend and manipulate objects.

  1. Gather materials needed: shoes that tie, tongue depressor, masking tape, heavy gloves, and blind folds.
  2. Have students tie a shoe blindfolded.
  3. Repeat this activity, but instruct the students todo so with heavy gloves on their hands.
  4. Instruct the students to repeat the activity again with tongue depressors taped onto their thumbs and forefingers.
  5. Instruct students to write or type an algorithm or flowchart for the process of tying their shoe.
  6. Have students in small groups talk about the experience using the following questions: how many steps does it take to tie a shoe? How many decisions need to be made during the process? Are there more efficient ways to tie a shoe? Can the students follow each other's flowcharts?

Extension: Try building a manual robotic hand and see what it can pick up. http://www.nasa.gov/audience/foreducators/topnav/materials/listbytype/I_Want_to_Hold_Your_Hand.html