Professor Homayoon Kazerooni is a robotics engineer at the University of California, Berkeley with more than 40 patents to his name. His research on exoskeletons relies on more than just ingenuity and engineering expertise, it's also an example of how inspiration can play a part in the innovation process, the simple desire to help other humans. “Science of Innovation” is produced in partnership with the National Science Foundation and the United States Patent and Trademark Office.
Science of Innovation -- Bionic Limbs
ANN CURRY, reporting:
In the Robotics and Human Engineering Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley, something almost miraculous is taking place.
STEVEN SANCHEZ (Volunteer Patient): It's a very spiritual feeling, that I'm as tall as you guys again.
CURRY: People with paralysis and other physical disabilities who’ve been unable to move their legs for years are walking again due to the development of a robotic exoskeleton.
Prof. HOMAYOON KAZEROONI (University of California, Berkeley): These are robotic devices that are worn by people, either on their arms or on their legs, on the trunk, ankle.
CURRY: Dr. Homayoon Kazerooni, or "Kaz" as his friends call him, is an NSF-funded robotics engineer with more than 40 patents to his name. His research on exoskeletons relies on more than just ingenuity and engineering expertise, it's also an example of how inspiration can play a part in the innovation process-- the simple desire to help other humans.
KAZEROONI: The way I come up to ideas are originated from the problems. I am very observant of the problems around us, people's problems.
CURRY: Kaz first got the idea for the exoskeleton after seeing other engineers' designs of humanoid robots.
KAZEROONI: It didn't take me more than a few minutes that I told myself, if you can make this machine walk by itself, what is wrong with that technology that we cannot use to make a paraplegic to walk?
CURRY: The development of the exoskeleton is an example of a field known as bionics, whereby materials and machines are engineered to mimic living organisms. In this case, Kaz looks to the human body for inspiration.
KAZEROONI: We try to learn as much as we can from our own body, the way we function, and bring this to exoskeleton and build it with very innate components we have.
CURRY: In humans, voluntary movement starts in the central nervous system, which consists of the brain and spinal cord. Nerve cells in the spinal cord, called motor neurons, fire off signals that tell the muscles to contract, which then moves the joints and allows the legs to move. In Kaz's exoskeleton, movement starts with a computer that acts like a human's central nervous system.
KAZEROONI: Now the same way that we have a central nervous system, we have a brain to make decisions and we transfer all that decisions to a variety of our body parts to do the function, the exoskeleton has that also, but of course is limited.
MICHAEL McKINLEY(Grad Student): We have some really light weight motors on the hips, carbon fiber leg braces to keep his legs in place, a computer in the back, and some battery packs that supply power. And the whole system comes in under 30 pounds.
CURRY: The exoskeleton's computer sends signals down to the actuators, or small motors, on the hips.
KAZEROONI: And the exoskeleton also has some sort of muscles and we call that actuations.
CURRY: The actuators turn the mechanical joints and move the bionic limbs, similar to how muscles and joints move human legs. Steven Sanchez is a volunteer patient at the Kaz Lab. A BMX racing accident eight years ago left him paralyzed from the waist down.
SANCHEZ: My injury happened when I was 17. I did a dirt jump on my BMX bike and it didn't feel right so I bailed and threw the bike, and I landed in the middle facing towards my takeoff and my feet were just tingling and i was like, 'something's not right here.'
CURRY: Sanchez has been working with Kaz's team for just a few months, but with each new step, he is already doing what he never thought he'd do again. He controls the exoskeleton with two buttons on one of his crutches. These buttons send signals to the computer, allowing his legs to move one at a time, or to stabilize when he wants to stand still.
SANCHEZ: Every time that I push a button that's located on my crutch, I can basically take a step whenever I want.
CURRY: In the Kaz Lab, other bionic innovations tied to mobility are being developed, from a device that supports the back when lifting heavy objects, to an above-the-knee prosthetic device to help amputees.
MINERVA PILLAI (Grad Student): Based on the height of the amputee, you can actually replace this lower part to adjust for height.
CURRY: With each of his inventions, Kaz says a key part of the innovation process is filing for a patent at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office because it allows him to not only protect his ideas, but also to share them with researchers around the world.
KAZEROONI: The patent process is a way that you encourage people to share information for a better quality of work for all of us, quality of life for all of us, is the way the basic principles of a patent is.
CURRY: Through robotics, bionic engineering, and a keen desire to help others, Homayoon Kazerooni and his students are working to build a better future for people, one step at a time.
The act of walking may not seem like a feat of agility, balance, strength and brainpower. But lose a leg, as Zac Vawter did after a motorcycle accident in 2009, and you will appreciate the myriad calculations that go into putting one foot in front of the other.
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