Tag Archives: exoskeleton

Exploring the science of Iron Man (prior to the opening of Captain America: Civil War, aka, Captain America vs. Iron Man)

Not unexpectedly, there’s a news item about science and Iron Man (it’s getting quite common for the science in movies to be promoted and discussed) just a few weeks before the movie Captain America: Civil War or, as it’s also known, Captain America vs. Iron Man opens in the US. From an April 26, 2016 news item on phys.org,

… how much of our favourite superheros’ power lies in science and how much is complete fiction?

As Iron Man’s name suggests, he wears a suit of “iron” which gives him his abilities—superhuman strength, flight and an arsenal of weapons—and protects him from harm.

In scientific parlance, the Iron man suit is an exoskeleton which is worn outside the body to enhance it.

An April 26, 2016 posting by Chris Marr on the ScienceNetwork Western Australia blog, which originated the news item, provides an interesting overview of exoskeletons and some of the scientific obstacles still to be overcome before they become commonplace,

In the 1960s, the first real powered exoskeleton appeared—a machine integrated with the human frame and movements which provided the wearer with 25 times his natural lifting capacity.

The major drawback then was that the unit itself weighed in at 680kg.

UWA [University of Western Australia] Professor Adrian Keating suggests that some of the technology seen in the latest Marvel blockbuster, such as controlling the exoskeleton with simple thoughts, will be available in the near future by leveraging ongoing advances of multi-disciplinary research teams.

“Dust grain-sized micromachines could be programmed to cooperate to form reconfigurable materials such as the retractable face mask, for example,” Prof Keating says.

However, all of these devices are in need of a power unit small enough to be carried yet providing enough capacity for more than a few minutes of superhuman use, he says.

Does anyone have a spare Arc Reactor?

Currently, most exoskeleton development has been for medical applications, with devices designed to give mobility to amputees and paraplegics, and there are a number in commercial production and use.

Dr Lei Cui, who lectures in Mechatronics at Curtin University, has recently developed both a hand and leg exoskeleton, designed for use by patients who have undergone surgery or have nerve dysfunction, spinal injuries or muscular dysfunction.

“Currently we use an internal battery that lasts about two hours in the glove, which can be programmed for only four different movement patterns,” Dr Cui says.

Dr Cui’s exoskeletons are made from plastic, making them light but offering little protection compared to the titanium exterior of Stark’s favourite suit.

It’s clear that we are a long way from being able to produce a working Iron Man suit at all, let alone one that flies, protects the wearer and has the capacity to fight back.

This is not the first time I’ve featured a science and pop culture story here. You can check out my April 28, 2014 posting for a story about how Captain America’s shield could be a supercapacitor (it also has a link to a North Carolina State University blog featuring science and other comic book heroes) and there is my May 6, 2013 post about Iron Man 3 and a real life injectable nano-network.

As for ScienceNetwork Western Australia, here’s more from their About SWNA page,

ScienceNetwork Western Australia (SNWA) is an online science news service devoted to sharing WA’s achievements in science and technology.

SNWA is produced by Scitech, the state’s science and technology centre and supported by the WA Government’s Office of Science via the Department of the Premier and Cabinet.

Our team of freelance writers work with in-house editors based at Scitech to bring you news from all fields of science, and from the research, government and private industry sectors working throughout the state. Our writers also produce profile stories on scientists. We collaborate with leading WA institutions to bring you Perspectives from prominent WA scientists and opinion leaders.

We also share news of science-related events and information about the greater WA science community including WA’s Chief Scientist, the Premier’s Science Awards, Innovator of the Year Awards and information on regional community science engagement.

Since our commencement in 2003 we have grown to share WA’s stories with local, national and global audiences. Our articles are regularly republished in print and online media in the metropolitan and regional areas.

Bravo to the Western Australia government! I wish there  initiatives of this type in Canada, the closest we have is the French language Agence Science-Presse supported by the Province of Québec.

Sinagpore’s new chip could make low-powered wireless neural implants a possibility and Australians develop their own neural implant

Singapore

This research from Singapore could make neuroprosthetics and exoskeletons a little easier to manage as long as you don’t mind having a neural implant. From a Feb. 11, 2016 news item on ScienceDaily,

A versatile chip offers multiple applications in various electronic devices, report researchers, suggested that there is now hope that a low-powered, wireless neural implant may soon be a reality. Neural implants when embedded in the brain can alleviate the debilitating symptoms of Parkinson’s disease or give paraplegic people the ability to move their prosthetic limbs.

Caption: NTU Asst Prof Arindam Basu is holding his low-powered smart chip. Credit: NTU Singapore

Caption: NTU Asst Prof Arindam Basu is holding his low-powered smart chip. Credit: NTU Singapore

A Feb. 11, 2016 Nanyang Technological University (NTU) press release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, provides more detail,

Scientists at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore (NTU Singapore) have developed a small smart chip that can be paired with neural implants for efficient wireless transmission of brain signals.

Neural implants when embedded in the brain can alleviate the debilitating symptoms of Parkinson’s disease or give paraplegic people the ability to move their prosthetic limbs.

However, they need to be connected by wires to an external device outside the body. For a prosthetic patient, the neural implant is connected to a computer that decodes the brain signals so the artificial limb can move.

These external wires are not only cumbersome but the permanent openings which allow the wires into the brain increases the risk of infections.

The new chip by NTU scientists can allow the transmission of brain data wirelessly and with high accuracy.

Assistant Professor Arindam Basu from NTU’s School of Electrical and Electronic Engineering said the research team have tested the chip on data recorded from animal models, which showed that it could decode the brain’s signal to the hand and fingers with 95 per cent accuracy.

“What we have developed is a very versatile smart chip that can process data, analyse patterns and spot the difference,” explained Prof Basu.

“It is about a hundred times more efficient than current processing chips on the market. It will lead to more compact medical wearable devices, such as portable ECG monitoring devices and neural implants, since we no longer need large batteries to power them.”

Different from other wireless implants

To achieve high accuracy in decoding brain signals, implants require thousands of channels of raw data. To wirelessly transmit this large amount of data, more power is also needed which means either bigger batteries or more frequent recharging.

This is not feasible as there is limited space in the brain for implants while frequent recharging means the implants cannot be used for long-term recording of signals.

Current wireless implant prototypes thus suffer from a lack of accuracy as they lack the bandwidth to send out thousands of channels of raw data.

Instead of enlarging the power source to support the transmission of raw data, Asst Prof Basu tried to reduce the amount of data that needs to be transmitted.

Designed to be extremely power-efficient, NTU’s patented smart chip will analyse and decode the thousands of signals from the neural implants in the brain, before compressing the results and sending it wirelessly to a small external receiver.

This invention and its findings were published last month [December 2015] in the prestigious journal, IEEE Transactions on Biomedical Circuits & Systems, by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, the world’s largest professional association for the advancement of technology.

Its underlying science was also featured in three international engineering conferences (two in Atlanta, USA and one in China) over the last three months.

Versatile smart chip with multiple uses

This new smart chip is designed to analyse data patterns and spot any abnormal or unusual patterns.

For example, in a remote video camera, the chip can be programmed to send a video back to the servers only when a specific type of car or something out of the ordinary is detected, such as an intruder.

This would be extremely beneficial for the Internet of Things (IOT), where every electrical and electronic device is connected to the Internet through a smart chip.

With a report by marketing research firm Gartner Inc predicting that 6.4 billion smart devices and appliances will be connected to the Internet by 2016, and will rise to 20.8 billion devices by 2020, reducing network traffic will be a priority for most companies.

Using NTU’s new chip, the devices can process and analyse the data on site, before sending back important details in a compressed package, instead of sending the whole data stream. This will reduce data usage by over a thousand times.

Asst Prof Basu is now in talks with Singapore Technologies Electronics Limited to adapt his smart chip that can significantly reduce power consumption and the amount of data transmitted by battery-operated remote sensors, such as video cameras.

The team is also looking to expand the applications of the chip into commercial products, such as to customise it for smart home sensor networks, in collaboration with a local electronics company.

The chip, measuring 5mm by 5mm can now be licensed by companies from NTU’s commercialisation arm, NTUitive.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

A 128-Channel Extreme Learning Machine-Based Neural Decoder for Brain Machine Interfaces by Yi Chen, Enyi Yao, Arindam Basu. IEEE Transactions on Biomedical Circuits and Systems, 2015; 1 DOI: 10.1109/TBCAS.2015.2483618

This paper is behind a paywall.

Australia

Earlier this month there was a Feb. 9, 2016 announcement about a planned human clinical trial in Australia for a new brain-machine interface (neural implant). Before proceeding with the news, here’s what this implant looks like,

Caption: This tiny device, the size of a small paperclip, is implanted in to a blood vessel next to the brain and can read electrical signals from the motor cortex, the brain's control centre. These signals can then be transmitted to an exoskeleton or wheelchair to give paraplegic patients greater mobility. Users will need to learn how to communicate with their machinery, but over time, it is thought it will become second nature, like driving or playing the piano. The first human trials are slated for 2017 in Melbourne, Australia. Credit: The University of Melbourne.

Caption: This tiny device, the size of a small paperclip, is implanted in to a blood vessel next to the brain and can read electrical signals from the motor cortex, the brain’s control centre. These signals can then be transmitted to an exoskeleton or wheelchair to give paraplegic patients greater mobility. Users will need to learn how to communicate with their machinery, but over time, it is thought it will become second nature, like driving or playing the piano. The first human trials are slated for 2017 in Melbourne, Australia. Credit: The University of Melbourne.

A Feb. 9, 2016 University of Melbourne press release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, provides more detail,

Melbourne medical researchers have created a new minimally invasive brain-machine interface, giving people with spinal cord injuries new hope to walk again with the power of thought.

The brain machine interface consists of a stent-based electrode (stentrode), which is implanted within a blood vessel next to the brain, and records the type of neural activity that has been shown in pre-clinical trials to move limbs through an exoskeleton or to control bionic limbs.

The new device is the size of a small paperclip and will be implanted in the first in-human trial at The Royal Melbourne Hospital in 2017.

The results published today in Nature Biotechnology show the device is capable of recording high-quality signals emitted from the brain’s motor cortex, without the need for open brain surgery.

Principal author and Neurologist at The Royal Melbourne Hospital and Research Fellow at The Florey Institute of Neurosciences and the University of Melbourne, Dr Thomas Oxley, said the stentrode was revolutionary.

“The development of the stentrode has brought together leaders in medical research from The Royal Melbourne Hospital, The University of Melbourne and the Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health. In total 39 academic scientists from 16 departments were involved in its development,” Dr Oxley said.

“We have been able to create the world’s only minimally invasive device that is implanted into a blood vessel in the brain via a simple day procedure, avoiding the need for high risk open brain surgery.

“Our vision, through this device, is to return function and mobility to patients with complete paralysis by recording brain activity and converting the acquired signals into electrical commands, which in turn would lead to movement of the limbs through a mobility assist device like an exoskeleton. In essence this a bionic spinal cord.”

Stroke and spinal cord injuries are leading causes of disability, affecting 1 in 50 people. There are 20,000 Australians with spinal cord injuries, with the typical patient a 19-year old male, and about 150,000 Australians left severely disabled after stroke.

Co-principal investigator and biomedical engineer at the University of Melbourne, Dr Nicholas Opie, said the concept was similar to an implantable cardiac pacemaker – electrical interaction with tissue using sensors inserted into a vein, but inside the brain.

“Utilising stent technology, our electrode array self-expands to stick to the inside wall of a vein, enabling us to record local brain activity. By extracting the recorded neural signals, we can use these as commands to control wheelchairs, exoskeletons, prosthetic limbs or computers,” Dr Opie said.

“In our first-in-human trial, that we anticipate will begin within two years, we are hoping to achieve direct brain control of an exoskeleton for three people with paralysis.”

“Currently, exoskeletons are controlled by manual manipulation of a joystick to switch between the various elements of walking – stand, start, stop, turn. The stentrode will be the first device that enables direct thought control of these devices”

Neurophysiologist at The Florey, Professor Clive May, said the data from the pre-clinical study highlighted that the implantation of the device was safe for long-term use.

“Through our pre-clinical study we were able to successfully record brain activity over many months. The quality of recording improved as the device was incorporated into tissue,” Professor May said.

“Our study also showed that it was safe and effective to implant the device via angiography, which is minimally invasive compared with the high risks associated with open brain surgery.

“The brain-computer interface is a revolutionary device that holds the potential to overcome paralysis, by returning mobility and independence to patients affected by various conditions.”

Professor Terry O’Brien, Head of Medicine at Departments of Medicine and Neurology, The Royal Melbourne Hospital and University of Melbourne said the development of the stentrode has been the “holy grail” for research in bionics.

“To be able to create a device that can record brainwave activity over long periods of time, without damaging the brain is an amazing development in modern medicine,” Professor O’Brien said.

“It can also be potentially used in people with a range of diseases aside from spinal cord injury, including epilepsy, Parkinsons and other neurological disorders.”

The development of the minimally invasive stentrode and the subsequent pre-clinical trials to prove its effectiveness could not have been possible without the support from the major funding partners – US Defense Department DARPA [Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency] and Australia’s National Health and Medical Research Council.

So, DARPA is helping fund this, eh? Interesting but not a surprise given the agency’s previous investments in brain research and neuroprosthetics.

For those who like to get their news via video,

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Minimally invasive endovascular stent-electrode array for high-fidelity, chronic recordings of cortical neural activity by Thomas J Oxley, Nicholas L Opie, Sam E John, Gil S Rind, Stephen M Ronayne, Tracey L Wheeler, Jack W Judy, Alan J McDonald, Anthony Dornom, Timothy J H Lovell, Christopher Steward, David J Garrett, Bradford A Moffat, Elaine H Lui, Nawaf Yassi, Bruce C V Campbell, Yan T Wong, Kate E Fox, Ewan S Nurse, Iwan E Bennett, Sébastien H Bauquier, Kishan A Liyanage, Nicole R van der Nagel, Piero Perucca, Arman Ahnood et al. Nature Biotechnology (2016)  doi:10.1038/nbt.3428 Published online 08 February 2016

This paper is behind a paywall.

I wish the researchers in Singapore, Australia, and elsewhere, good luck!

#BCTECH: being at the Summit (Jan. 18-19, 2016)

#BCTECH Summit 2016*, a joint event between the province of British Columbia (BC, Canada) and the BC Innovation Council (BCIC), a crown corporation formerly known as the Science Council of British Columbia, launched on Jan. 18, 2016. I have written a preview (Jan. 17, 2016 post) and a commentary on the new #BCTECH strategy (Jan. 19, 2016 posting) announced by British Columbia Premier, Christy Clark, on the opening day (Jan. 18, 2016) of the summit.

I was primarily interested in the trade show/research row/technology showcase aspect of the summit focusing (but not exclusively) on nanotechnology. Here’s what I found,

Nano at the Summit

  • Precision NanoSystems: fabricates equipment which allows researchers to create polymer nanoparticles for delivering medications.

One of the major problems with creating nanoparticles is ensuring a consistent size and rapid production. According to Shell Ip, a Precision NanoSystems field application scientist, their NanoAssemblr Platform has solved the consistency problem and a single microfluidic cartridge can produce 15 ml in two minutes. Cartridges can run in parallel for maximum efficiency when producing nanoparticles in greater quantity.

The NanoAssemblr Platform is in use in laboratories around the world (I think the number is 70) and you can find out more on the company’s About our technology webpage,

The NanoAssemblr™ Platform

The microfluidic approach to particle formulation is at the heart of the NanoAssemblr Platform. This well-controlled process mediates bottom-up self-assembly of nanoparticles with reproducible sizes and low polydispersity. Users can control size by process and composition, and adjust parameters such as mixing ratios, flow rate and lipid composition in order to fine-tune nanoparticle size, encapsulation efficiency and much more. The system technology enables manufacturing scale-up through microfluidic reactor parallelization similar to the arraying of transistors on an integrated chip. Superior design ensures that the platform is fast and easy to use with a software controlled manufacturing process. This usability allows for the simplified transfer of manufacturing protocols between sites, which accelerates development, reduces waste and ultimately saves money. Precision NanoSystems’ flagship product is the NanoAssemblr™ Benchtop Instrument, designed for rapid prototyping of novel nanoparticles. Preparation time on the system is streamlined to approximately one minute, with the ability to complete 30 formulations per day in the hands of any user.

The company is located on property known as the Endowment Lands or, more familiarly, the University of British Columbia (UBC).

A few comments before moving on, being able to standardize the production of medicine-bearing nanoparticles is a tremendous step forward which is going to help scientists dealing with other issues. Despite all the talk in the media about delivering nanoparticles with medication directly to diseased cells, there are transport issues: (1) getting the medicine to the right location/organ and (2) getting the medicine into the cell. My Jan. 12, 2016 posting featured a project with Malaysian scientists and a team at Harvard University who are tackling the transport and other nanomedicine) issues as they relate to the lung. As well, I have a Nov. 26, 2015 posting which explores a controversy about nanoparticles getting past the ‘cell walls’ into the nucleus of the cell.

The next ‘nano’ booths were,

  • 4D Labs located at Simon Fraser University (SFU) was initially hailed as a nanotechnology facility but these days they’re touting themselves as an ‘advanced materials’ facility. Same thing, different branding.

They advertise services including hands-on training for technology companies and academics. There is a nanoimaging facility and nanofabrication facility, amongst others.

I spoke with their operations manager, Nathaniel Sieb who mentioned a few of the local companies that use their facilities. (1) Nanotech Security (featured here most recently in a Dec. 29, 2015 post), an SFU spinoff company, does some of their anticounterfeiting research work at 4D Labs. (2) Switch Materials (a smart window company, electrochromic windows if memory serves) also uses the facilities. It is Neil Branda’s (4D Labs Executive Director) company and I have been waiting impatiently (my May 14, 2010 post was my first one about Switch) for either his or someone else’s electrochromic windows (they could eliminate or reduce the need for air conditioning during the hotter periods and reduce the need for heat in the colder periods) to come to market. Seib tells me, I’ll have to wait longer for Switch. (3) A graduate student was presenting his work at the booth, a handheld diagnostic device that can be attached to a smartphone to transmit data to the cloud. While the first application is for diabetics, there are many other possibilities. Unfortunately, glucose means you need to produce blood for the test when I suggested my preference for saliva the student explained some of the difficulties. Apparently, your saliva changes dynamically and frequently and something as simple as taking a sip of orange juice could result in a false reading. Our conversation (mine, Seib’s and the student’s) also drifted over into the difficulties of bringing products to market. Sadly, we were not able to solve that problem in our 10 minute conversation.

  • FPInnovations is a scientific research centre and network for the forestry sector. They had a display near their booth which was like walking into a peculiar forest (I was charmed). The contrast with the less imaginative approaches all around was striking.

FPInnovation helped to develop cellulose nanocrystals (CNC), then called nanocrystalline cellulose (NCC), and I was hoping to be updated about CNC and about the spinoff company Celluforce. The researcher I spoke to was from Sweden and his specialty was business development. He didn’t know much about CNC in Canada and when I commented on how active Sweden has been its pursuit of a CNC application, he noted Finland has been the most active. The researcher noted that making the new materials being derived from the forest, such as CNC, affordable and easily produced for use in applications that have yet to be developed are all necessities and challenges. He mentioned that cultural changes also need to take place. Canadians are accustomed to slicing away and discarding most of the tree instead of using as much of it as possible. We also need to move beyond the construction and pulp & paper sectors (my Feb. 15, 2012 posting featured nanocellulose research in Sweden where sludge was the base material).

Other interests at the Summit

I visited:

  • “The Wearable Lower Limb Anthropomorphic Exoskeleton (WLLAE) – a lightweight, battery-operated and ergonomic robotic system to help those with mobility issues improve their lives. The exoskeleton features joints and links that correspond to those of a human body and sync with motion. SFU has designed, manufactured and tested a proof-of-concept prototype and the current version can mimic all the motions of hip joints.” The researchers (Siamak Arzanpour and Edward Park) pointed out that the ability to mimic all the motions of the hip is a big difference between their system and others which only allow the leg to move forward or back. They rushed the last couple of months to get this system ready for the Summit. In fact, they received their patent for the system the night before (Jan. 17, 2016) the Summit opened.

It’s the least imposing of the exoskeletons I’ve seen (there’s a description of one of the first successful exoskeletons in a May 20, 2014 posting; if you scroll down to the end you’ll see an update about the device’s unveiling at the 2014 World Cup [soccer/football] in Brazil).

Unfortunately, there aren’t any pictures of WLLAE yet and the proof-of-concept version may differ significantly from the final version. This system could be used to help people regain movement (paralysis/frail seniors) and I believe there’s a possibility it could be used to enhance human performance (soldiers/athletes). The researchers still have some significant hoops to jump before getting to the human clinical trial stage. They need to refine their apparatus, ensure that it can be safely operated, and further develop the interface between human and machine. I believe WLLAE is considered a neuroprosthetic device. While it’s not a fake leg or arm, it enables movement (prosthetic) and it operates on brain waves (neuro). It’s a very exciting area of research, consequently, there’s a lot of international competition.

  • Delightfully, after losing contact for a while, I reestablished it with the folks (Sean Lee, Head External Relations and Jim Hanlon, Chief Administrative Officer) at TRIUMF (Canada’s national laboratory for particle and nuclear physics). It’s a consortium of 19 Canadian research institutions (12 full members and seven associate members).

It’s a little disappointing that TRIUMF wasn’t featured in the opening for the Summit since the institution houses theoretical, experimental, and applied science work. It’s a major BC (and Canada) science and technology success story. My latest post (July 16, 2015) about their work featured researchers from California (US) using the TRIUMF cyclotron for imaging nanoscale materials and, on the more practical side, there’s a Mar. 6, 2015 posting about their breakthrough for producing nuclear material-free medical isotopes. Plus, Maclean’s Magazine ran a Jan. 3, 2016 article by Kate Lunau profiling an ‘art/science’ project that took place at TRIUMF (Note: Links have been removed),

It’s not every day that most people get to peek inside a world-class particle physics lab, where scientists probe deep mysteries of the universe. In September [2015], Vancouver’s TRIUMF—home to the world’s biggest cyclotron, a type of particle accelerator—opened its doors to professional and amateur photographers, part of an event called Global Physics Photowalk 2015. (Eight labs around the world participated, including CERN [European particle physics laboratory], in Geneva, where the Higgs boson particle was famously discovered.)

Here’s the local (Vancouver) jury’s pick for the winning image (from the Nov. 4, 2015 posting [Winning Photographs Revealed] by Alexis Fong on the TRIUMF website),

Caption: DESCANT (at TRIUMF) neutron detector array composed of 70 hexagonal detectors Credit: Pamela Joe McFarlane

Caption: DESCANT (at TRIUMF) neutron detector array composed of 70 hexagonal detectors Credit: Pamela Joe McFarlane

With all those hexagons and a spherical shape, the DESCANT looks like a ‘buckyball’ or buckminsterfullerene or C60  to me.

I hope the next Summit features TRIUMF and/or some other endeavours which exemplify, Science, Technology, and Creativity in British Columbia and Canada.

Onto the last booth,

  • MITACS was originally one of the Canadian federal government’s Network Centres for Excellence projects. It was focused on mathematics, networking, and innovation but once the money ran out the organization took a turn. These days, it’s describing itself as (from their About page) “a national, not-for-profit organization that has designed and delivered research and training programs in Canada for 15 years. Working with 60 universities, thousands of companies, and both federal and provincial governments, we build partnerships that support industrial and social innovation in Canada.”Their Jan. 19, 2016 news release (coincidental with the #BCTECH Summit, Jan. 18 – 19, 2016?) features a new report about improving international investment in Canada,

    Opportunities to improve Canada’s attractiveness for R&D investment were identified:

    1.Canada needs to better incentivize R&D by rebalancing direct and indirect support measures

    2.Canada requires a coordinated, client-centric approach to incentivizing R&D

    3.Canada needs to invest in training programs that grow the knowledge economy”

    Oddly, entrepreneurial/corporate/business types never have a problem with government spending when the money is coming to them; it’s only a problem when it’s social services.

    Back to MITACS, one of their more interesting (to me) projects was announced at the 2015 Canadian Science Policy Conference. MITACS has inaugurated a Canadian Science Policy Fellowships programme which in its first year (pilot) will see up up to 10 academics applying their expertise to policy-making while embedded in various federal government agencies. I don’t believe anything similar has occurred here in Canada although, if memory serves, the Brits have a similar programme.

    Finally, I offer kudos to Sherry Zhao, MITACS Business Development Specialist, the only person to ask me how her organization might benefit my business. Admittedly I didn’t talk to a lot of people but it’s striking to me that at an ‘innovation and business’ tech summit, only one person approached me about doing business.  Of course, I’m not a male aged between 25 and 55. So, extra kudos to Sherry Zhao and MITACS.

Christy Clark (Premier of British Columbia), in her opening comments, stated 2800 (they were expecting about 1000) had signed up for the #BCTECH Summit. I haven’t been able to verify that number or get other additional information, e.g., business deals, research breakthroughs, etc. announced at the Summit. Regardless, it was exciting to attend and find out about the latest and greatest on the BC scene.

I wish all the participants great and good luck and look forward to next year’s where perhaps we’ll here about how the province plans to help with the ‘manufacturing middle’ issue. For new products you need to have facilities capable of reproducing your devices at a speed that satisfies your customers; see my Feb. 10, 2014 post featuring a report on this and other similar issues from the US General Accountability Office.

*’BCTECH Summit 2016′ link added Jan. 21, 2016.

Brazil, the 2014 World Cup kickoff, and a mind-controlled exoskeleton (part four of five)

The Brain research, ethics, and nanotechnology (part one of five) May 19, 2014 post kicked off a series titled ‘Brains, prostheses, nanotechnology, and human enhancement’ which brings together a number of developments in the worlds of neuroscience, prosthetics, and, incidentally, nanotechnology in the field of interest called human enhancement. Parts one through four are an attempt to draw together a number of new developments, mostly in the US and in Europe. Due to my language skills which extend to English and, more tenuously, French, I can’t provide a more ‘global perspective’. Part five features a summary.

Brazil’s World Cup for soccer/football which opens on June 12, 2014 will be the first public viewing of someone with paraplegia demonstrating a mind-controlled exoskeleton (or a robotic suit as it’s sometimes called) by opening the 2014 games with the first kick-off.

I’ve been covering this story since 2011 and, even so, was late to the party as per this May 7, 2014 article by Alejandra Martins for BBC World news online,

The World Cup curtain-raiser will see the first public demonstration of a mind-controlled exoskeleton that will enable a person with paralysis to walk.

If all goes as planned, the robotic suit will spring to life in front of almost 70,000 spectators and a global audience of billions of people.

The exoskeleton was developed by an international team of scientists as part of the Walk Again Project and is the culmination of more than a decade of work for Dr Miguel Nicolelis, a Brazilian neuroscientist based at Duke University in North Carolina. [emphasis mine]

Since November [2013], Dr Nicolelis has been training eight patients at a lab in Sao Paulo, in the midst of huge media speculation that one of them will stand up from his or her wheelchair and deliver the first kick of this year’s World Cup.

“That was the original plan,” the Duke University researcher told the BBC. “But not even I could tell you the specifics of how the demonstration will take place. This is being discussed at the moment.”

Speaking in Portuguese from Sao Paulo, Miguel Nicolelis explained that all the patients are over 20 years of age, with the oldest about 35.

“We started the training in a virtual environment with a simulator. In the last few days, four patients have donned the exoskeleton to take their first steps and one of them has used mental control to kick a ball,” he explained.

The history of Nicolelis’ work is covered here in a series of a posts starting the with an Oct. 5, 2011 post (Advertising for the 21st Century: B-Reel, ‘storytelling’, and mind control; scroll down 2/3 of the way for a reference to Ed Yong’s article where I first learned of Nicolelis).

The work was explored in more depth in a March 16, 2012 posting (Monkeys, mind control, robots, prosthetics, and the 2014 World Cup (soccer/football) and then followed up a year later by two posts which link Nicoleliis’ work with the Brain Activity Map (now called, BRAIN [Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies] initiative: a March 4, 2013 (Brain-to-brain communication, organic computers, and BAM [brain activity map], the connectome) and a March 8,  2013 post (Prosthetics and the human brain) directly linking exoskeleton work in Holland and the project at Duke with current brain research and the dawning of a new relationship to one’s prosthestics,

On the heels of research which suggests that humans tend to view their prostheses, including wheel chairs, as part of their bodies, researchers in Europe  have announced the development of a working exoskeleton powered by the wearer’s thoughts.

Getting back to Brazil and Nicolelis’ technology, Ian Sample offers an excellent description in an April 1, 2014 article for the Guardian (Note: Links have been removed),

The technology in question is a mind-controlled robotic exoskeleton. The complex and conspicuous robotic suit, built from lightweight alloys and powered by hydraulics, has a simple enough function. When a paraplegic person straps themselves in, the machine does the job that their leg muscles no longer can.

The exoskeleton is the culmination of years of work by an international team of scientists and engineers on the Walk Again project. The robotics work was coordinated by Gordon Cheng at the Technical University in Munich, and French researchers built the exoskeleton. Nicolelis’s team focused on ways to read people’s brain waves, and use those signals to control robotic limbs.

To operate the exoskeleton, the person is helped into the suit and given a cap to wear that is fitted with electrodes to pick up their brain waves. These signals are passed to a computer worn in a backpack, where they are decoded and used to move hydraulic drivers on the suit.

The exoskeleton is powered by a battery – also carried in the backpack – that allows for two hours of continuous use.

“The movements are very smooth,” Nicolelis told the Guardian. “They are human movements, not robotic movements.”

Nicolelis says that in trials so far, his patients seem have taken to the exoskeleton. “This thing was made for me,” one patient told him after being strapped into the suit.

The operator’s feet rest on plates which have sensors to detect when contact is made with the ground. With each footfall, a signal shoots up to a vibrating device sewn into the forearm of the wearer’s shirt. The device seems to fool the brain into thinking that the sensation came from their foot. In virtual reality simulations, patients felt that their legs were moving and touching something.

Sample’s article includes a good schematic of the ‘suit’ which I have not been able to find elsewhere (meaning the Guardian likely has a copyright for the schematic and is why you won’t see it here) and speculation about robotics and prosthetics in the future.

Nicolelis and his team have a Facebook page for the Walk Again Project where you can get some of the latest information with  both English and Portuguese language entries as they prepare for the June 12, 2014 kickoff.

One final thought, this kickoff project represents an unlikely confluence of events. After all, what are the odds

    • that a Brazil-born researcher (Nicolelis) would be working on a project to give paraplegics the ability to walk again? and
    • that Brazil would host the World Cup in 2014 (the first time since 1950)? and
    • that the timing would coincide so a public demonstration at one of the world’s largest athletic events (of a sport particularly loved in Brazil) could be planned?

It becomes even more extraordinary when one considers that Brazil had isolated itself somewhat in the 1980s with a policy of nationalism vis à vis the computer industry (from the Brazil Science and Technology webpage on the ITA website),

In the early 1980s, the policy of technological nationalism and self-sufficiency had narrowed to the computer sector, where protective legislation tried to shield the Brazilian mini- and microcomputer industries from foreign competition. Here again, the policy allowed for the growth of local industry and a few well-qualified firms, but the effect on the productive capabilities of the economy as a whole was negative; and the inability to follow the international market in price and quality forced the policy to be discontinued.

For those who may have forgotten, the growth of the computer industry (specifically personal computers) in the 1980s figured hugely in a country’s economic health and, in this case,with  a big negative impact in Brazil.

Returning to 2014, the kickoff in Brazil (if successful) symbolizes more than an international athletic competition or a technical/medical achievement, this kick-off symbolizes a technological future for Brazil and its place on the world stage (despite the protests and social unrest) .

Links to other posts in the Brains, prostheses, nanotechnology, and human enhancement five-part series

Part one: Brain research, ethics, and nanotechnology (May 19, 2014 post)

Part two: BRAIN and ethics in the US with some Canucks (not the hockey team) participating (May 19, 2014)

Part three: Gray Matters: Integrative Approaches for Neuroscience, Ethics, and Society issued May 2014 by US Presidential Bioethics Commission (May 20, 2014)

Part five: Brains, prostheses, nanotechnology, and human enhancement: summary (May 20, 2014)

ETA June 16, 2014: The kickoff seems to have been a disappointment (June 15, 2014 news item on phys.org) and for those who might be interested in some of the reasons for the World Cup unrest and protests in Brazil, John Oliver provides an excoriating overview of the organization which organizes the World Cup games while professing his great love of the games, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DlJEt2KU33I

Cyborgian dance at McGill University (Canada)

As noted in the Canadian Council of Academies report ((State of Science and Technology in Canada, 2012), which was mentioned in my Dec. 28, 2012 posting, the field of visual and performing arts is an area of strength and that is due to one province, Québec. Mark Wilson’s Aug. 13, 2013 article for Fast Company and Paul Ridden’s Aug. 7, 2013 article for gizmag.com about McGill University’s Instrumented Bodies: Digital Prostheses for Music and Dance Performance seem to confirm Québec’s leadership.

From Wilson’s Aug. 13, 2013 article (Note: A link has been removed),

One is a glowing exoskeleton spine, while another looks like a pair of cyborg butterfly wings. But these aren’t just costumes; they’re wearable, functional art.

In fact, the team of researchers from the IDML (Input Devices and Music Interaction Laboratory [at McGill University]) who are responsible for the designs go so far as to call their creations “prosthetic instruments.”

Ridden’s Aug. 7, 2013 article offers more about the project’s history and technology,

For the last three years, a small research team at McGill University has been working with a choreographer, a composer, dancers and musicians on a project named Instrumented Bodies. Three groups of sensor-packed, internally-lit digital music controllers that attach to a dancer’s costume have been developed, each capable of wirelessly triggering synthesized music as the performer moves around the stage. Sounds are produced by tapping or stroking transparent Ribs or Visors, or by twisting, turning or moving Spines. Though work on the project continues, the instruments have already been used in a performance piece called Les Gestes which toured Canada and Europe during March and April.

Both articles are interesting but Wilson’s is the fast read and Ridden’s gives you information you can’t find by looking up the Instrumented Bodies: Digital Prostheses for Music and Dance Performance project webpage,

These instruments are the culmination of a three-year long project in which the designers worked closely with dancers, musicians, composers and a choreographer. The goal of the project was to develop instruments that are visually striking, utilize advanced sensing technologies, and are rugged enough for extensive use in performance.

The complex, transparent shapes are lit from within, and include articulated spines, curved visors and ribcages. Unlike most computer music control interfaces, they function both as hand-held, manipulable controllers and as wearable, movement-tracking extensions to the body. Further, since the performers can smoothly attach and detach the objects, these new instruments deliberately blur the line between the performers’ bodies and the instrument being played.

The prosthetic instruments were designed and developed by Ph.D. researchers Joseph Malloch and Ian Hattwick [and Marlon Schumacher] under the supervision of IDMIL director Marcelo Wanderley. Starting with sketches and rough foam prototypes for exploring shape and movement, they progressed through many iterations of the design before arriving at the current versions. The researchers made heavy use of digital fabrication technologies such as laser-cutters and 3D printers, which they accessed through the McGill University School of Architecture and the Centre for Interdisciplinary Research in Music Media and Technology, also hosted by McGill.

Each of the nearly thirty working instruments produced for the project has embedded sensors, power supplies and wireless data transceivers, allowing a performer to control the parameters of music synthesis and processing in real time through touch, movement, and orientation. The signals produced by the instruments are routed through an open-source peer-to-peer software system the IDMIL team has developed for designing the connections between sensor signals and sound synthesis parameters.

For those who prefer to listen and watch, the researchers have created a video documentary,

I usually don’t include videos that run past 5 mins. but I’ve made an exception for this almost 15 mins. documentary.

I was trying to find mention of a dancer and/or choreographer associated with this project and found a name along with another early stage participant, choreographer, Isabelle Van Grimde, and composer, Sean Ferguson, in Ridden’s article.

Prosthetics and the human brain

On the heels of research which suggests that humans tend to view their prostheses, including wheel chairs, as part of their bodies, researchers in Europe  have announced the development of a working exoskeleton powered by the wearer’s thoughts.

First, there’s the ‘wheelchair’ research, from the Mar. 6, 2013 news item on ScienceDaily,

People with spinal cord injuries show strong association of wheelchairs as part of their body, not extension of immobile limbs.

The human brain can learn to treat relevant prosthetics as a substitute for a non-working body part, according to research published March 6 in the open access journal PLOS ONE by Mariella Pazzaglia and colleagues from Sapienza University and IRCCS Fondazione Santa Lucia of Rome in Italy, supported by the International Foundation for Research in Paraplegie.

The researchers found that wheelchair-bound study participants with spinal cord injuries perceived their body’s edges as being plastic and flexible to include the wheelchair, independent of time since their injury or experience with using a wheelchair. Patients with lower spinal cord injuries who retained upper body movement showed a stronger association of the wheelchair with their body than those who had spinal cord impairments in the entire body.

According to the authors, this suggests that rather than being thought of only as an extension of the immobile limbs, the wheelchairs had become tangible, functional substitutes for the affected body part. …

As I mentioned in a Jan. 30, 2013 posting,

There have been some recent legal challenges as to what constitutes one’s body (from The Economist article, You, robot? [you can find the article here: http://www.economist.com/node/21560986]),

If you are dependent on a robotic wheelchair for mobility, for example, does the wheelchair count as part of your body? Linda MacDonald Glenn, an American lawyer and bioethicist, thinks it does. Ms Glenn (who is not involved in the RoboLaw project) persuaded an initially sceptical insurance firm that a “mobility assistance device” damaged by airline staff was more than her client’s personal property, it was an extension of his physical body. The airline settled out of court.

According to the Mar. 6, 2013 news release on EurekAlert from the Public Library of Science (PLoS), the open access article by Pazzaglia and her colleagues can be found here (Note: I have added a link),

Pazzaglia M, Galli G, Scivoletto G, Molinari M (2013) A Functionally Relevant Tool for the Body following Spinal Cord Injury. PLOS ONE 8(3): e58312.doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0058312

At almost the same time as Pazzaglia’s work,  a “Mind-controlled Exoskeleton” is announced in a Mar. 7, 2013 news item on ScienceDaily,

Every year thousands of people in Europe are paralysed by a spinal cord injury. Many are young adults, facing the rest of their lives confined to a wheelchair. Although no medical cure currently exists, in the future they could be able to walk again thanks to a mind-controlled robotic exoskeleton being developed by EU-funded researchers.

The system, based on innovative ‘Brain-neural-computer interface’ (BNCI) technology — combined with a light-weight exoskeleton attached to users’ legs and a virtual reality environment for training — could also find applications in there habilitation of stroke victims and in assisting astronauts rebuild muscle mass after prolonged periods in space.

The Mar. 7, 2013 news release on CORDIS, which originated the news item, offers a description of the “Mindwalker” project,

‘Mindwalker was proposed as a very ambitious project intended to investigate promising approaches to exploit brain signals for the purpose of controlling advanced orthosis, and to design and implement a prototype system demonstrating the potential of related technologies,’ explains Michel Ilzkovitz, the project coordinator at Space Applications Services in Belgium.

The team’s approach relies on an advanced BNCI system that converts electroencephalography (EEG) signals from the brain, or electromyography (EMG) signals from shoulder muscles, into electronic commands to control the exoskeleton.

The Laboratory of Neurophysiology and Movement Biomechanics at the Université Libre de Bruxelles (ULB) focused on the exploitation of EEG and EMG signals treated by an artificial neural network, while the Foundation Santa Lucia in Italy developed techniques based on EMG signals modelled by the coupling of neural and biomechanical oscillators.

One approach for controlling the exoskeleton uses so-called ‘steady-state visually evoked potential’, a method that reads flickering visual stimuli produced at different frequencies to induce correlated EEG signals. Detection of these EEG signals is used to trigger commands such as ‘stand’, ‘walk’, ‘faster’ or ‘slower’.

A second approach is based on processing EMG signals generated by the user’s shoulders and exploits the natural arm-leg coordination in human walking: arm-swing patterns can be perceived in this way and converted into control signals commanding the exoskeleton’s legs.

A third approach, ‘ideation’, is also based on EEG-signal processing. It uses the identification and exploitation of EEG Theta cortical signals produced by the natural mental process associated with walking. The approach was investigated by the Mindwalker team but had to be dropped due to the difficulty, and time needed, in turning the results of early experiments into a fully exploitable system.

Regardless of which method is used, the BNCI signals have to be filtered and processed before they can be used to control the exoskeleton. To achieve this, the Mindwalker researchers fed the signals into a ‘Dynamic recurrent neural network'(DRNN), a processing technique capable of learning and exploiting the dynamic character of the BNCI signals.

‘This is appealing for kinematic control and allows a much more natural and fluid way of controlling an exoskeleton,’ Mr Ilzkovitz says.

The team adopted a similarly practical approach for collecting EEG signals from the user’s scalp. Most BNCI systems are either invasive, requiring electrodes to be placed directly into brain tissue, or require users to wear a ‘wet’ capon their head, necessitating lengthy fitting procedures and the use of special gels to reduce the electrical resistance at the interface between the skin and the electrodes. While such systems deliver signals of very good quality and signal-to-noise ratio, they are impractical for everyday use.

The Mindwalker team therefore turned to a ‘dry’ technology developed by Berlin-based eemagine Medical Imaging Solutions: a cap covered in electrodes that the user can fit themselves, and which uses innovative electronic components to amplify and optimise signals before sending them to the neural network.

‘The dry EEG cap can be placed by the subject on their head by themselves in less than a minute, just like a swimming cap,’ Mr Ilzkovitz says.

Before proceeding any further with details, here’s what the Mindwalker looks like,

© MINDWALKER (downladed from http://cordis.europa.eu/fetch?CALLER=OFFR_TM_EN&ACTION=D&RCN=10601)

© MINDWALKER (downloaded from http://cordis.europa.eu/fetch?CALLER=OFFR_TM_EN&ACTION=D&RCN=10601)

After finding a way to collect the EEG/EMG signals and interpret them, the researchers needed to create the exoskeleton (from the CORDIS news release),

The universities of Delft and Twente in the Netherlands proposed an innovative approach for the design of the exoskeleton and its control. The exoskeletonis designed to be sufficiently robust to bear the weight of a 100 kg adult and powerful enough to recover balance from external causes of instability such as the user’s own torso movements during walking or a gentle push from the back or side. Compared to other exoskeletons developed to date it is relatively light, weighing less than 30 kg without batteries, and, because a final version of the system should be self-powered, it is designed to minimise energy consumption.

The Mindwalker researchers achieved energy efficiency through the use of springs fitted inside the joints that are capable of absorbing and recovering some of the energy otherwise dissipated during walking, and through the development of an efficient strategy for controlling the exoskeleton.

Most exoskeletons are designed to be balanced when stationary or quasi-static and to move by little steps inside their ground stability perimeter, an approach known as ‘Zero moment point’, or ZMP. Although this approach is commonly used for controlling humanoid robots, when applied to exoskeletons, it makes them heavy and slow – and usually requires users to be assisted by a walking frame, sticks or some other support device when they move.

Alternatively, a more advanced and more natural control strategy can replicate the way humans actually walk, with a controlled loss of balance in the walking direction.

‘This approach is called “Limit-cycle walking” and has been implemented using model predictive control to predict the behaviour of the user and exoskeleton and for controlling the exoskeleton during the walk. This was the approach investigated in Mindwalker,’ Mr Ilzkovitz says.

To train users to control the exoskeleton, researchers from Space Applications Services developed a virtual-reality training platform, providing an immersive environment in which new users can safely become accustomed to using the system before testing it out in a clinical setting, and, the team hope, eventually using it in everyday life.

By the end of this year, tests with able-bodied trial users will be completed. The system will then be transferred to the Foundation Santa Lucia for conducting a clinical evaluation until May 2013 with five to 10volunteers suffering from spinal cord injuries. These trials will help identify shortcomings and any areas of performance improvement, the project coordinator says.

In the meantime, the project partners are continuing research on different components for a variety of potential applications. The project coordinator notes, for example, that elements of the system could be adapted for the rehabilitation of stroke victims or to develop easy-to-use exoskeletons for elderly people for mobility support.

Space Applications Services, meanwhile, is also exploring applications of the Mindwalker technology to train astronauts and help them rebuild muscle mass after spending long periods of time in zero-gravity environments.

There’s more about the European Commission’s Seventh Programme-funded Mindwalker project here.

Parallel with these developments in Europe, Miguel Nicolelis of Duke University has stated that he will have a working exoskeleton (Walk Again Project)  for the kickoff by a paraplegic individual for the opening of the World Cup (soccer/football) in Brazil in 2014. I mentioned Nicolelis and his work most recently in a Mar. 4, 2013 posting.

Taken together, this research which strongly suggests that people can perceive prostheses as being part of their bodies and exoskeletons that are powered by the wearer’s thoughts, we seem to be edging closer to a world where machines and humans become one.

Monkeys, mind control, robots, prosthetics, and the 2014 World Cup (soccer/football)

The idea that a monkey in the US could control a robot’s movements in Japan is stunning. Even more stunning is the fact that the research is four years old. It was discussed publicly in a Jan. 15, 2008 article by Sharon Gaudin for Computer World,

Scientists in the U.S. and Japan have successfully used a monkey’s brain activity to control a humanoid robot — over the Internet.

This research may only be a few years away from helping paralyzed people walk again by enabling them to use their thoughts to control exoskeletons attached to their bodies, according to Miguel Nicolelis, a professor of neurobiology at Duke University and lead researcher on the project.

“This is an attempt to restore mobility to people,” said Nicolelis. “We had the animal trained to walk on a treadmill. As it walked, we recorded its brain activity that generated its locomotion pattern. As the animal was walking and slowing down and changing his pattern, his brain activity was driving a robot in Japan in real time.”

This video clip features an animated monkey simulating control of  a real robot in Japan (the Computational Brain Project of the Japan Science and Technology Agency (JST) in Kyoto partnered with Duke University for this project),

I wonder if the Duke researchers or communications staff thought that the sight of real rhesus monkeys on treadmills might be too disturbing. While we’re on the topic of simulation, I wonder where the robot in the clip actually resides. Quibbles about the video clip aside, I have no doubt that the research took place.

There’s a more recent (Oct. 5, 2011) article, about the work being done in Nicolelis’ laboratory at Duke University, by Ed Yong for Discover Magazine (mentioned previously described in my Oct. 6, 2011 posting),

This is where we are now: at Duke University, a monkey controls a virtual arm using only its thoughts. Miguel Nicolelis had fitted the animal with a headset of electrodes that translates its brain activity into movements. It can grab virtual objects without using its arms. It can also feel the objects without its hands, because the headset stimulates its brain to create the sense of different textures. Monkey think, monkey do, monkey feel – all without moving a muscle.
And this is where  Nicolelis wants to be in three years: a young quadriplegic Brazilian man strolls confidently into a massive stadium. He controls his four prosthetic limbs with his thoughts, and they in turn send tactile information straight to his brain. The technology melds so fluidly with his mind that he confidently runs up and delivers the opening kick of the 2014 World Cup.

This sounds like a far-fetched dream, but Nicolelis – a big soccer fan – is talking to the Brazilian government to make it a reality.

According to Yong, Nicolelis has created an international consortium to support the Walk Again Project. From the project home page,

The Walk Again Project, an international consortium of leading research centers around the world represents a new paradigm for scientific collaboration among the world’s academic institutions, bringing together a global network of scientific and technological experts, distributed among all the continents, to achieve a key humanitarian goal.

The project’s central goal is to develop and implement the first BMI [brain-machine interface] capable of restoring full mobility to patients suffering from a severe degree of paralysis. This lofty goal will be achieved by building a neuroprosthetic device that uses a BMI as its core, allowing the patients to capture and use their own voluntary brain activity to control the movements of a full-body prosthetic device. This “wearable robot,” also known as an “exoskeleton,” will be designed to sustain and carry the patient’s body according to his or her mental will.

In addition to proposing to develop new technologies that aim at improving the quality of life of millions of people worldwide, the Walk Again Project also innovates by creating a complete new paradigm for global scientific collaboration among leading academic institutions worldwide. According to this model, a worldwide network of leading scientific and technological experts, distributed among all the continents, come together to participate in a major, non-profit effort to make a fellow human being walk again, based on their collective expertise. These world renowned scholars will contribute key intellectual assets as well as provide a base for continued fundraising capitalization of the project, setting clear goals to establish fundamental advances toward restoring full mobility for patients in need.

It’s the exoskeleton described on the Walk Again Project home page that Nicolelis is hoping will enable a young Brazilian quadriplegic to deliver the opening kick for the 2014 World Cup (soccer/football) in Brazil.