Colleague's Therapy Robot Aids McCormick Professor’s Rehabilitation

When mechanical engineering expert and National Academy of Engineering and National Academy of Sciences member Ted Belytschko was recuperating from a stroke last year, his physical therapists recommended that a robot named “KineAssist” accompany him on his treadmill exercises. The device, they explained, would sense when Belytschko was losing his balance and catch him if he fell.

Belytschko, McCormick Professor and Walter P. Murphy Professor of Computation Mechanics and (by courtesy) Civil and Environmental Engineering, was already familiar with the KineAssist. It was born of the human/robot interaction program just down the hall from his office, in the laboratory of his fellow academics, mechanical engineering professors Michael A. Peshkin and J. Edward Colgate.

“I came into the office and said, ‘Guess what? I’m using that device you designed,’” said Belytschko.

Since suffering a blockage on the right side of his brain in April 2010, Belytschko has been visiting the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago’s Northbrook location to regain motor function in the left side of his body. The rehabilitation center is home to one of four KineAssists created by Peshkin, Colgate, and physical therapy professor David Brown.

In a traditional physical therapy model, a human therapist helps to balance a patient as he walks and catches him if he begins to fall, Peshkin explained. But a fall could injure both patient and therapist, so rarely is the patient allowed to get off balance.

“People learn when they’re challenged beyond the point of comfort,” Peshkin said. “You don’t learn through caution, you learn through taking chances.”

Over the course of four therapy sessions with the KineAssist Walking and Balance Exercise System, Belytschko learned to take those risks. “I could get off-balance, but I knew I’d get caught,” he said. While he continues to work on his strength and balance, Belytschko’s mobility has improved and he has returned to teaching.

A figure showing a patient resting on the KineAssist, walking, and working with the aid of a physical therapist.The KineAssist was developed and commercialized through Kinea Design LLC, a McCormick spin-off founded by Peshkin, Colgate, and Brown. The company was recently purchased by HDT Robotics, based in Fredericksburg, Va.

Watch a video of the KineAssist in use.