Many of us are familiar with the inconveniences of having to stay at home in light of current orders for shelter-in-place due to COVID-19. But when the health of the community doesn’t require us to stay inside and we must lead our busy lives, having to always leave the house can be just as inconvenient – as well as draining. That’s the reality for people who require consistent physical therapy. Appointments with a physical therapist at a clinic or center might occur on a weekly or even daily basis and for hours on end, and having a physical therapist visit the home is not always financially possible. A practical alternative would be a mode of portable physical therapy that can be conducted independently.
Under the mentorship of Professor Grace O’Connell and Owen Kent, UC Berkeley graduate students Todd Roberts, Bianca Riello, Pablo Amor, Melissa Keller, and Mruthun Thirumalaisamy are working on project Rehab Robo, a device that will help physical therapy patients stretch their muscles on their own. Currently, the team is refining a design that specifically focuses on moving the elbow joint to mimic exercises that a physical therapist would normally perform to stretch the biceps and prevent muscle contracture, or shortening. Functioning like a brace, the device grasps the user’s arm at points both above and below the bent elbow and gradually opens the arm at the elbow joint in a hinge-like motion, stretching the bicep. The team has been prioritizing safety, functionality, and user comfort in the designing process and has also been looking to implement sensors that will allow the device to be used as a research tool. Such sensors would be able to measure and collect data such as torque and range of motion such that the effectiveness of the device, perhaps paired with drugs that also combat contracture, can be quantitatively visualized.
This device was the result of a seven-week long project for Professor O’Connell’s course, Designing for the Human Body (ME 178 / BioE 137). Owen, a project partner for the course, and the rest of the team, graduate students taking the course, were able to come together through the course and formulate the initial idea with the help of Owen’s passions for robotics and assistive technology and Professor O’Connell’s expertise in biomechanics. The team would often hold discussions over dinners and would design and 3D-print prototypes out of pocket. A pairing system they developed allowed each member to contribute their individual skills while also teaching someone not as familiar with such skills but who was interested in learning. The end result? A functioning brace with the marketing potential to be an accessible consumer product and a very close-knit team.
Now funded by the Jacobs Institute for Design Innovation Ignite grant, the team is looking forward to more effectively developing the functionality and scope of Rehab Robo in the future.
For more information about this project, please email Professor Grace O’Connell (firstname.lastname@example.org).