New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal: Researchers at UNB taking giant steps in linking robotics with human body

Researchers studying technology that could one day help people with degenerative diseases walk with greater ease and prevent injury to soldiers carrying heavy gear are about to get some help.

Quebec City-based B-Temia is opening the world’s first Centre for Research in Dermoskeletics on the University of New Brunswick’s Fredericton campus. As part of the initiative, 13 graduate students and post-doctoral fellows will be hired.

“We are going to be able to pursue development of this new science and push the limits of our understanding of the interactions of the human body with these robotic devices,” Stéphane Bédard, founder, president and CEO of B-Temia, said at an announcement Monday at UNB.

As part of the announcement, UNB researchers showed off the so-called dermo-device by strapping it to a graduate student’s legs. The device, custom programmed for the user, has sensors that can determine whether a person is moving to sit down, walk, crouch and even whether they are heading up or down stairs. That information controls a motor and clutch in each disk next to the knees.

“As soon as I turn it on, it tries to assist with any movement I make with my legs,” said Rob Smith, a master’s student in mechanical engineering at UNB, who demonstrated the device. The device also helps offload weight to the joints.

Prof. Chris McGibbon, research chair in rehabilitation biomechanics at the Institute of Biomedical Engineering at UNB, is one of six researchers from the Faculty of Kinesiology and the Institute of Biomedical Engineering working on the project. McGibbon said they will be looking to answer a number of questions about the technology, including the potential impact of long-term use and the challenges that might be faced by users who have had reduced mobility.

“How does this interaction with the human body work? Down the road could there be problems? Those are questions we don’t know the answers to, but we’ll be applying our knowledge in biomedics and technology to determine what they will mean.” He said they will also look at effects on a user’s joints and muscles and the potential effects on the cardiovascular system of a user previously prevented from exercising because of their impairment. “Before we test with individuals, we have to understand how much energy the body expends to operate the device,”McGibbon said.

Bédard said the research will help his company as it develops high-value assistive devices for mobility that help individuals regain mobility.”The goal is to develop this science. I think we have an infrastructure here that will allow us to better understand what B-Temia has developed.”

Bédard said the university’s scientific capacity, the province’s focus on developing innovation and the proximity of a major military base, factored into B-Temia’s decision to choose Fredericton.He added that the technology could be applied help prevent injury and reduce fatigue among soldiers, who now carry as much as 67 kilograms of gear on a march.

“When a soldier wears this as a preventative measure, it improves their mobility, reduces the metabolic energy they consume, they are less tired and prevents musculo-skeletal injury.”The goal is to walk in the same (amount of) time, but be less tired at the end. It’s not about making them a super human, it’s about keeping them fresher day-after-day, month-after-month and keep them ready.”

The U.S. military is spending $500 million a year to address the costs musculo-skeletal injuries, which leave as many as one in five of its soldiers unable to deploy at any given time, Bédard said. He said his company is already working with a group of firefighters who face health and safety risks from the heavy equipment they carry. He said the technology could help people with Parkinson’s and multiple sclerosis, and those with orthopedic problems, especially to the knees and back. UNB president Eddy Campbell welcomed the project.

“To a field like dermo-skeletics, it really does allow the best and brightest minds in our fields to apply the fundamental discoveries that they are able to make in a real-world way that benefits individuals and people – and along the way helps grow our economy.” As part of Monday’s announcement, the province contributed $297,5000 to Mitacs, a non-profit that funds research between universities and businesses that drive innovation. The provincial contribution will to towards funding 35 research and development internships and fellowships.

The university and the federal government are putting in the same amount. “This investment is providing graduate students and fellows increased employment opportunities in New Brunswick’s knowledge economy,” said Brian Macdonald, MLA for Fredericton-Silverwood. “Our government is focused on growing the economy by investing in people, skills and jobs.”

By: Shawn Berry