URI engineering professor awarded prestigious ‘early career’ NSF grant for powered prosthetics research

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Lincoln resident aims to help amputees walk more easily

KINGSTON, R.I. – May 8, 2012 – Significant advancements are being made in the development of improved prosthetics devices, including motorized prostheses that help users walk with a natural gait. But the devices are still awkward to use in the transition from walking on level ground to climbing stairs or navigating rough terrain.

With the help of a $520,000 grant from the National Science Foundation, a University of Rhode Island engineering professor hopes to decode neuromuscular control signals so the prosthesis can interpret the user’s intent and smooth these transitions. The grant was awarded through the NSF Faculty Early Career Development Program, the most prestigious NSF grant program supporting junior faculty members.

He (Helen) Huang, URI assistant professor of biomedical engineering, said she wants to “seamlessly integrate the powered prostheses with lower limb amputees so they can walk naturally, transition across terrain, and allow the person to do many tasks and transition between tasks in a normal way.”

According to Huang, almost all the lower limb prostheses on the market today are passive devices that generate movement through the motion of the user’s body. Motorized prostheses now in development provide power to the knee and ankle joints, resulting in a natural walking gait and requiring considerably less energy from the user.

“The person is going to wear this powered prosthesis like a robot, but the robot doesn’t know what the person wants to do next,” said Huang, a resident of Lincoln.

The grant will enable Huang to systematically investigate and quantify the interactive effects between lower limb amputees and powered prostheses.

“The first time they try it, it’s going to be awkward,” she said. “They’re going to have to learn how to use it, and we’re going to study how they adapt to it. We want to quantify how they change their neuromuscular control when they adapt to the prosthesis.”

Huang is already working with above-knee amputees and testing their use of the powered prostheses as they walk up ramps, climb stairs, and traverse level ground. By combining multiple streams of information from the prosthesis, its user, and the environment, she has developed an algorithm that she believes will help to interpret user intent during transitions so they may have better control of powered prosthetic legs.

In the future, the URI scientist plans to combine her powered prosthesis research with her work to create a stumble-detection system for prostheses so users can recover safely from slips and trips.

In addition, she will work with physical therapists and other clinical professionals to ensure that the final product can be easily incorporated into the current system of prosthesis fitting and therapy.

Huang will also use her research to engage middle and high school students, especially those in underrepresented groups, in learning about science and technology.

“My career goals are to carry out research that can improve the quality of life for patients with physical disabilities,” said Huang, “and educate the next generation of engineers and scientists, who will impact the future of science and technology.”

URI Department of Communications & Marketing photo by John Peterson.