Meek Receives NIHNRI Grant for Quadrupedal Human-Assistive Robotic Platform

August 26, 2015

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For his Quadrupedal Human-Assistive Robotic Platform (Q-HARP) research, University of Utah mechanical engineering associate professor Sanford Meek received a three-year $186,219  NIHNRI (National Institutes of Health National Robotics Initiative) : Collaborative Research grant.

Aging of the population has become a long-term trend in the United States. According to The State of Aging and Health in America, the U.S. population aged 65 and older is expected to double during the 25 years following 2007, and there will be 71 million American older adults, accounting for approximately 20% of the U.S. population by 2030. For the health and wellbeing of older adults, a key factor is being physically active. However, a large number of them have difficulty in maintaining an active lifestyle, resulting from the gradual degeneration of the musculoskeletal structure, or the related musculoskeletal or neural pathologies (e.g. stroke). With the impaired mobility, such individuals are more likely to live in a sedentary lifestyle, and suffer from the various problems associated with the sedentary lifestyle, e.g. high blood pressure, depression, obesity, etc.

To help these elder individuals live a healthy and productive life, we propose to develop a novel quadrupedal human-assistive robotic platform (Q-HARP). The Q-HARP can be used as a Smart Power-Assist Walker: in this mode, a user, situated in the center of the legged robot, can enjoy the desired power assist in walking according to his/her intent. As such, a Q-HARP user is able to perform an appropriate amount of physical activity, while enjoying the enhanced level of mobility and independence during his/her daily life. Furthermore, with the Q-HARP’s legged motion, the human-robot system can easily overcome most common obstacles in the daily life. The environmental adaptability far exceeds that of powered wheelchair, the dominant powered mobility tool for elderly assistance.

In addition to the Smart Power-Assist Walker mode, the Q-HARP can also be used in the Smart Mule mode: a user can walk along the side of the robot, with the robot carrying load and following the user. Such function is also very useful in a user’s daily activities, e.g. walking to a neighborhood grocery store for shopping. Note that the robot also has the capability of carrying load on the side in the Walker mode, but in the Smart Mule mode the robot is expected to provide more load-carrying space after simple conversion (e.g. installing a cargo net at the center). This expansion in functionality is expected to make the robot more versatile and flexible in its daily use.

To develop such an innovative robot, we will use a high-power-density chemo-fluidic actuation approach to generate the desired torque and power capacity while keeping the robot compact and lightweight. Additionally, we will also develop an intelligent control system to provide natural and interactive physical assistance according to the user’s intent. This novel control system adopts a tri-level structure: one the higher level, a 3D computer vision-based sensing system will be developed to detect the user motion and the environment; on the middle level, a biomimetic, impedance-based motion planner will be developed to facilitate the interaction between the robot and the user; on the lower level, a physical impedance regulator will be developed to obtain the desired motion and power assist to the user, leveraging the controllable physical impedance of the pneumatic actuators. Overall, this project has a potential to generate significant impact on the related technical areas in robotics while benefiting the large and rapidly growing elderly population in the U.S.