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Robots to improve human mobility

Queen’s researcher Amy Wu investigates how people walk, building knowledge that can lead to the development of robots that can help people with disabilities.

Researchers interact with the Spot robot at the Ingenuity Labs.
The state-of-the-art Spot robot, a collaborative research tool at Ingenuity Labs, can be used to study topics ranging from autonomous monitoring of remote sites to directly assistance of humans during joint tasks. The robot is capable of walking at fast speeds, on uneven terrain, and up and down stairs, making it highly suitable for test and deployment in the range of environments required for practical applications.

Most people take walking for granted, as this is something they master as toddlers and remains intuitive throughout the rest of their lives. For Amy Wu, the Mitchell Professor in Bio-inspired Robotics in the Department of Mechanical and Materials Engineering, walking means much more: human mobility is her object of research.

Dr. Wu pays close attention to how humans move in regular and challenging conditions, looking for insights that will change the way we think and build assistive technologies. Her research blends two interests: biomechanics and robotics, with a focus on locomotion and balance control. In a nutshell, Dr. Wu’s goal is to understand how humans move to help improve human mobility.

“The idea is to study the principles of how humans walk and balance, and use these insights to build better robots,” she explains, noting that there’s a variety of potential applications, from walking robots to wearable devices and exoskeletons that will restore mobility for people with disabilities.

A member of the Ingenuity Labs Research Institute, Dr. Wu’s team uses state-of-the-art technology to investigate human gait and balance. Volunteers in the lab wear reflective markers all over their bodies and walk in front of a high-resolution recording camera and over a platform that measures the force their feet apply to the ground. Additionally, the researchers monitor respiration – specifically, oxygen consumption and carbon dioxide expenditures to better understand the how much energy people exert while walking.

Amy Wu – Queen’s Mitchell Professor in Bio-Inspired Robotics from Queen's Engineering on Vimeo.

Dr. Wu meticulously observes how the human body behaves under different conditions. She pays attention, for instance, to how different joints bend, or how high one needs to lift their feet to avoid tripping, or how a faster or slower gait changes the way the body moves.

“We are also starting to study how people move outside. We monitored volunteers walking in a loop around campus in the summer months and then during winter, looking at how they change their gait to avoid slipping and falling,” says Dr. Wu, noting that there’s not a lot of studies that have looked at stability in walking outdoors – doing experiments in these settings poses some extra challenges to the research, because the environment can’t be completely controlled.

Knowledge obtained through this in-depth investigation of human motion can be applied in a variety of ways, including the previously mentioned wearable devices, or in the development of legged robots that can walk side-by-side with people to help them out, or even robots built to explore places no human can reach – Traveling to another planet? A location devastated by a natural disaster? One can imagine innumerous possibilities.

But while it is easy to dream of imaginative scenarios, Dr. Wu’s feet are firmly planted on the ground. Part of her research is looking at the practical ways in which robots can move from sci-fi movies and books into interacting and supporting humans in their everyday lives. That includes how to balance function and design to facilitate the interaction between humans and robots, which is crucial in developing robots that will help people in their daily tasks. We need to ensure our assistive robots are easy to operate, safe, and, ideally, affordable.

Queen's Engineering researchers designed an exoskeleton that improves walking efficiency, allowing users to walk further while using less energy. The study was featured in the leading academic journal ScienceLearn more.

There’s also a lot of practical and ethical questions that need to be answered.

“If robots were everywhere, walking with us, carrying our groceries, or working by our side, how would they affect the way we behave? How can we design robots to be more acceptable and integrated with the society?” asks Dr. Wu.

Those are important questions the team keeps in mind while investigating how humans move and how robots can improve mobility in people with disabilities – one step at a time.