September 21, 2011

Robotic Arm Gets a Helping Hand

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From left, Mark Lesek and Caillin Eastwood-Sutherland with the robotic prosthetic arm prototype (far left). Photograph courtesy of The Mercury, Hobart, Tasmania.

A master’s degree project underway at the University of Tasmania, Australia (UTAS), Hobart, School of Engineering, is aiming to help prosthetic arms to move like real ones. By using motion-capture technology that he created, postgraduate student Caillin Eastwood-Sutherland has developed a way of recording biological motions of a human arm and integrating those motions into a robotic arm.

“The camera captures the movement of an amputee’s normal arm, which could be anything as simple as picking up a drink or waving your arm, and we use that movement to ‘teach’ the mechanical limb to function the same way,” Eastwood-Sutherland said in an online article in the Hobart, Tasmania-based The Mercury.

Eastwood-Sutherland’s project is connected to the work of Mark Lesek, an engineer, machinist, and director of Dynamic Welding and Engineering, Moonah, Tasmania, who is developing a functional prosthetic arm that can cope with machine work.

Seven years ago, Lesek, who suffered a transhumeral amputation as a result of a car accident, pioneered a new design for a prosthetic limb after experts told him that he was not a suitable candidate for a prosthesis. Part of Lesek’s aim was to prove that advanced prosthetic limbs could be inexpensive, but still viable. He continues to advance his work.

“It’s a very narrow market and a very controlled industry, which has stifled any real innovation…,” Lesek said.

Lesek handed over his innovation to Eastwood-Sutherland, who has spent two years on his master’s project integrating robotics into Lesek’s design.

Eastwood Sutherland developed a stereo vision unit, comprising a tripod, camera, and mirror, to allow 3D motion capture by tracking infrared markers strapped on the subject’s wrist, elbow, and shoulder. The movements are copied into a computer by motion caption software that he also developed, which are then integrated into the robotic arm.

Eastwood-Sutherland said the ultimate goal of his project would be for people with a prosthetic arm to have a robotic prosthesis that can cope with a wide variety of functions and movements, which would be programmed into the arm itself.

This article was adapted from materials provided by the University of Tasmania, Australia.

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