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Robotic Leaders from Around the World Descend on Chicago

McCormick faculty key players in international robotics conference

For humans who experience paralysis, being able to move again might seem like a distant dream. But that dream is closer to becoming a reality than one might think.

McCormick School of Engineering’s Kevin Lynch, professor of mechanical engineering, and his collaborators are using electrical stimulation to reanimate paralyzed arms. Their goal is to allow humans with paralysis to perform daily tasks such as eating, combing their hair, and turning a doorknob. By thinking of the human arm as if it were a robotic arm, the team works to understand which muscles to stimulate in order to move the arm in functional ways. The effort is already showing promise in human subjects. 

Lynch’s research will be one of several McCormick projects presented at the 2014 IEEE/RSJ International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems (IROS) on Sept. 14 to 18 at the Palmer House Hilton in Chicago. Nearly 2,000 robotics leaders from around the world are expected to attend, including many experts from Northwestern University and the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago (RIC).

Kevin Lynch“Robotics is a hot field right now, with new technology and software enabling robotics researchers to design powerful and precise robots that can safely collaborate with humans,” said Lynch, who is also the conference general chair.

Northwestern and RIC researchers will discuss their pioneering work improving robotic arm control, providing sensation of a missing hand, developing neural prosthetics to help paralyzed people regain arm use, coordinating swarms of small robots, developing a robotic fish with bio-inspired sensing and motion capabilities, and translating robotics research into startup companies, among other topics.

“Robotics have a long history in manufacturing, but these machines are largely bolted to the floor and don’t interact much with people,” Lynch said. “Today’s new generation of robots have grown into a wide array of applications, such as advanced prosthetics, automated fulfillment of Amazon orders, computerized surgery, home cleaning, and even driverless cars. The IROS conference will highlight the researchers, technology and companies, both large and small, that are part of this robotics revolution.” 

McCormick—which is launching a Master of Science in Robotics program this fall—is a leader in robotics research, having developed new technologies for rehabilitation robotics, advanced prosthetics, brain-machine interfaces, and other types of human-robot interaction.

McCormick will be well-represented at the IROS conference, including these faculty members and robotics laboratories:

  • “Development of Neural Interfaces for Robotic Prosthetic Limbs,” Tuesday, Sept. 16

Prosthetics expert Todd Kuiken, professor of biomedical engineering at McCormick and professor of surgery, physical medicine and rehabilitation at the Feinberg School of Medicine and RIC, will deliver one of three plenary lectures, discussing advances in the ability to control complex artificial limbs. Specifically, he will describe a new surgical technique called Targeted Muscle Reinnervation that uses nerve transfers to improve robotic arm control and provide sensation of the missing hand.

  • “Industry Forum: Perspectives on Entrepreneurship in Robotics and Automation,” Tuesday, Sept. 16

Michael Peshkin, professor of mechanical engineering and a researcher in robotics and human interaction, will present a keynote address on transitioning innovations from the lab to a startup company. His topics will include the intellectual property and equity relationship with a university, working with students or former students, and stories from several startups. Peshkin is a co-founder of four spinoffs, most recently Evanston-based Tangible Haptics, which is developing surface-haptic technology that lets you feel what you see on a touchscreen.

An expert in robotic devices that provide physical assistance, Brenna D. Argall, assistant professor of electrical engineering and computer science at McCormick and physical medicine and rehabilitation at RIC, is organizing a workshop bringing clinicians and roboticists together to identify the key challenges in rehabilitation and assistive robotics, collaborations for funding opportunities, benchmarks, and challenge problems for the field.

  • “Technical Tour of the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago and Northwestern University,” afternoon of Thursday, Sept. 18

Conference participants will tour robotics labs of RIC and McCormick’s Neuroscience and Robotics Lab (NxR). Topics to be covered include advanced prosthetics, rehabilitation robotics, autonomous mobile assistive robots and lower limb exoskeletons (powered wearable devices, such as Sigourney Weaver’s “loader” in Aliens 2).

  • “Hops n’ Bots at the Adler Planetarium,” 6 to 10 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 18, Adler Planetarium, 1300 S. Lake Shore Drive ($20 at the door)

Part of an Adler After Dark event, two McCormick professors will participate in a panel discussion about cutting-edge robotics, titled “Robotic Cheetahs, Fish, Fingers and Bacteria: The Coming Menagerie of Mechanical Cohabitants,” at 8:30 p.m. Ed Colgate, whose work focuses on physical human and robot interaction, will moderate. He is the Breed University Professor of Mechanical Engineering. Panelist Malcolm MacIver will talk about the robotic fish he has developed, inspired by the weakly electric black ghost knifefish of the Amazon basin, which could pave the way for highly agile underwater vehicles. MacIver is an associate professor of mechanical and of biomedical engineering. Other panelists are from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of Pisa, and ETH Zurich.