Dr. Daniel Jacobs, Temple University Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering, is bringing exoskeletons out of the lab and into the home. The goal, he said, is to empower people with neurological and musculoskeletal disorders to maintain their quality of life, their jobs, and their presence in the community.
As the head of the Robotics in Interdisciplinary Science and Engineering (RISE) laboratory at Temple Engineering, Dr. Jacobs researches the design and the control of wearable robots for gait assistance and rehabilitation. His long-term goal is to characterize the neuromechanics—the symbiotic combination of neuroscience and biomechanics—of robot-assisted locomotion to create adaptive, multi-function exoskeletons for walking.
"Wearable robotics are becoming more common, but to be successful, we need to better understand how to interface humans with robots. Robots are precise and repeatable, but humans are not," Dr. Jacobs said. "When we move, we have variability. We are constantly adapting and learning based on the environment. When you put these two systems together, it's not the same as simple addition. The moment you put on the device, a human will begin to adapt and change their behavior."
As a recent awardee of a Career Development Grant by the Interdisciplinary Rehabilitation Engineering Program, Dr. Jacobs aims to translate exoskeleton technologies to individuals with Multiple Sclerosis. He hypothesizes that these individuals can reduce the energetic cost of walking with assistance from the exoskeleton.
"Multiple Sclerosis (MS) is a degenerative disease, and currently there is no known cure. Over time, the protective coating of the nerves is damaged, which affects every part of the body, including vision, your sense of touch, and your control of balance and movement," Dr. Jacobs said.
He added that exoskeletons will likely be important parts of clinical care in the future. In addition to the research goal, this project is personally meaningful to Dr. Jacobs: he has friends and family diagnosed with MS.
"Care for this population is very costly because the degeneration of the nerves continues over time, presenting unique challenges for improving care with current technology. Exoskeletons must adapt to the individual in the short term while they are learning the device but also in the long term as their diseases progress. This is the key limitation right now," Dr. Jacobs said.
"What happens to the user a day, six months, or even two years after using the exoskeleton? I want to create a device that can continue to adapt over time, so that when a person's unique impairment changes, the exoskeleton will still provide effective assistance."
The exoskeleton is physiologically controlled using a combination of sensors, including the subject's own muscle activity. Using a motion capture system, an instrumented treadmill, and an electromyography system (EMG), Dr. Jacobs and his team experimentally measure the kinematics, kinetics, and muscle activity of the participants.
In addition to the physical assistance these devices provide, Dr. Jacobs stressed the importance of these devices in mental health.
"Research has shown that physical activity and freedom of movement are important to fighting depression in individuals with this disease," Dr. Jacobs said. "If we can help people get a little bit more exercise, help them get outside of their home, help them keep their jobs, or just feel a little bit more normal, it will be a huge win."