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Enhancing robotic limbs

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Will the future put more power in our punches?

Will the future put more power in our punches?

Sasint Pixabay CC0 Editorial use only

Sasint Pixabay CC0 Editorial use only

Will the future put more power in our punches?

Nicholas Smith, Feature writer

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Devices that restore mobility to amputees and injured people have been in use since pirates started strapping on peg legs but new research is blending robotics and prosthetics – restoring the ability to not only walk, but also to run.

With the advances in modern technology, there is a good possibility that humans will eventually be able to kit themselves out with custom made robotic pistons, akin to Ripley in that famous Alien scene.

The scientific possibilities of these cyborg arms, appendages and bodies have excited people of all ages for years, with pop culture standouts including the Terminator, Anakin Skywalker in Star Wars and Kryten from Red Dwarf.

How many times have we seen heroes faced with something impossible to lift or carry through normal ‘human’ means, prevail because they have been fitted with although with a tiny enhancement device or a bit of wiring that means they can easily move that troublesome object.

While real tech hasn’t fully caught up with these visions, we are getting closer.

Slowly but surely, scientists have begun the excruciatingly long process that will allow us to inch closer to the Marvel breakthrough that will give us the ability and strength to lift like the Hulk and punch like Ripley.

At our current level of technology, one of the major problems in this type of research is the lack of clarity for those physically making the devices, as scientists haven’t yet fully tested what types of mechanics are needed for the increased mobility that it will eventually create.

What this means is that research has to be done in order to move onto the next step in our road to hitting and lifting heavy things.

When completed, this kind of technology will have the ability to assist those who would desperately benefit from it. Firemen could, without hassle and own their own, lift incredibly heavy and burning pieces of debris, such as supporting beams and trees, which could save lives, alongside treasured and sentimental items for victims of bushfires.

Trade workers could reduce the huge stress placed on their bodies by the irregular movements their jobs require, and soldiers could seamlessly carry injured comrades from the battlefield to a safe location with enhanced support.

Some of these scientists that are working tirelessly have done studies on what could lead to robot arms, in a way that is more realistic for what technology we have and how much a ‘perfect’ experiment would cost.

Dr Christopher Dembia, works at the Stanford University in the mechanical department. He was lead author on experiment, recently published by PLoS, that tested the hypothetical strain on joints in order to help manufacturers to create devices that assist specific joints in the appropriate way and to the appropriate amount.

Currently companies that are working on creating replacement limbs and exoskeleton-style support devices don’t know which part of the joints need help, for which specific tasks. So this experiment tested which joints needed assistance and when, and how devices might reduce the energy and force needed.

(This is a step in the right direction, as it will help the companies in the hopefully not too distant future to give journalists robot arms for when they cramp.)

The study used original motion capture data from seven men, all in a similar age, height and weight bracket where over seven minute periods, participants would walk slow and then fast carrying no weight; and then carrying a 38kg pack, so that Dr Dembia and his team could measure the way their bodies moved, as well as the muscle activity they then used in each of their four simulations.

Dr Dembia, along with his fellow scientists, used “a three-dimensional musculoskeletal model that they developed by taking measurements from 21 cadavers and 24 young healthy humans. While slightly grisly sounding, this gave the experiment a solid foundation model of the human body and its movements to build on.

They added to this base model that data from the measurements taken during the four types of walking by each of the seven participants and created an improved model that can be used to test wearable robotic limbs in a computer simulation.

They then ran some of these simulations, using imaginary, ideal, “massless” devices and found that all of the ideal devices created by the team were successful in reducing the energy-cost of movement metabolically. The device working with flexing of the hip, in particular, was hugely productive, as it reduced the metabolic rate by 18.2%, while the a knee flexion device reduced the energy expenditure by 13.2%.

When asked about the experiment and of the possibility of digital enhancement, Dr Dembia said: “As of right now, there is no ‘Alien-like’ enhancements for the human body, as it is far too costly for companies to attempt construction at the present time,” although he relented and did mention that he is not at all opposed to the idea, and that the possible advantages to it are “undeniable.”

That said, Dr Dembia and his team are excited about the practical application of their findings as a 5% reduction in the metabolic cost for a patient struggling to walk or lift is equivalent to shaving 4 kgs off the challenge.

What this means for the future is slightly unclear, as this research is still quite recent, but it’s a fascinating and useful study that could have profound significance on many fields.

However, as we learnt from Uncle Ben in Spiderman or Voltaire during the French Revolution, ‘With great power comes great responsibility.’ This responsibility is doubly so if enhanced strength becomes a norm, as violence can be misused.

Despite this, the possible benefits are exciting as wearable robotic technology could allow humans to do things previously only feasible in science fiction.

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Enhancing robotic limbs