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Seed Grant Awardee: Wenlong Zhang

Wenlong Zhang | School of Engineering

Low-cost and lightweight wearable soft robots can be used in labor-intensive jobs and sports training to reduce muscle efforts and joint loads, prevent injuries, and improve performance. This project builds upon the success of our current GSI-funded seed project “Soft Robotic Exosuits for Performance Improvement and Injury Prevention in Sports” to extend the exosuit design to hip joint and examine its benefits on both sports training and stroke gait rehabilitation.

Three tasks are planned in this project. 1) New soft actuation mechanism for assisting the hip joint: our last project demonstrated an undergarment soft exosuit with fabric-based inflatable actuators to support knee extension. For this project, new inflatable actuator designs will be studied to generate hip flexion and extension support through exploring various materials, geometries, and fabrication techniques. As a result, the new exosuit will be able to provide assistance (or resistance) in the entire gait cycle for both joints. The research team will characterize the material properties of the actuators, optimize the design to reduce the weight and size of the exosuit, and evaluate the actuation speeds and output torques. 2) Coordinated control of hip and knee joint assistance: the current exosuit, while proved effective in the last project, only assists one joint without personalization of the assistance. This project will develop a novel flow- impedance control scheme to assist hip and knee joints simultaneously throughout the entire gait cycle. We will use phase portrait to represent the hip-knee coupling, follow individual gait dynamics, and allow volitional control. 3) Human participant testing and evaluation: the new exosuit system will be tested in sports training and stroke gait rehabilitation. In the current project, we have tested the benefits of the knee exosuit in lifting tasks with eight healthy individuals. The research team has also built a partnership with Sun Devil Women’s Lacrosse, and they have expressed interest in testing the exosuit in their routine training (current testing delayed due to COVID-19).

The current seed project allows us to collaborate with Barrow Neurological Institute on a pilot study to evaluate the benefits of knee exosuit in stroke rehabilitation, and we plan to extend this testing with the new hip-knee exosuit system. Both tests will focus on understanding the task performance of the users, joint loads and muscle efforts, and deployment guidelines of the exosuit to maximize its benefit and reduce overtraining/overreliance. In summary, the requested funding will generate new designs, machine learning algorithms, and testing results to advance the soft exosuit for broader applications.

Our past GSI seed projects have resulted in two patents and four journal papers, national media coverage, and preliminary results to secure external grants (more than 10x the seed grant amount). This project fits the themes of Sport 2036 and Sport and The Body. It allows us to continue the study on how robotics and automation shape and benefit sport, and explore how to advance performance and prevent injuries in sport activities by considering the human mind, body, and the wearable robot as a tightly integrated system.

Read the final paper from this GSI-funded project here.

Last updated July 2021.