Sumit Piya of Lalitpur, Nepal, a master’s student studying industrial engineering at Lamar University, shows the 3D printed hand that is part of the research project.

Staff Report

For The Record

BEAUMONT – Thanks to a grant from LU’s Center for Innovation, Commercialization and Entrepreneurship (CICE), the university’s Department of Industrial Engineering has made headway in a long-term project to develop a hybrid, brain-computer interface based rehabilitation system for victims of a neurological disease to regain their mobility.

The first step towards the broader goal is a three-month period in which the project team conducts research, development, and improvement of a prosthetic hand using an open-source design and the department’s 3D printer.

“The idea started with my collaboration with Dr. Yueqing Li,” said Weihang Zhu, associate professor and graduate advisor for the Department of Industrial Engineering with a background in robotics. Li is an assistant professor in the department.

“He came in with expertise in brain-computer interface and we proposed to work together on this rehabilitation project. I knew that if we could get a grant to get the project going, we’d make the first steps, then it would grow and grow,” he said.

The project begins with 3D printing of robot hand parts using PLA, a type of plastic. After the numerous, intricate pieces have been printed, a process totaling about 14 hours, the team determines how to assemble the parts and the several motors needed to make them move.

“It’s an open source design published on the Internet, and it includes instructions on how to put it together. Open source projects aren’t perfect. When I started to put it together, I had some problems. It took a lot of work because the design was really not user-friendly in terms of the assembly process,” said Zhu.

Besides correcting design flaws, the team is mindful of the end goal of the project to help increase all-over hand mobility. The current model for the prosthetic hand does not allow for precise movements, so the team is learning to work with the hardware and software to imitate the capabilities of a real hand.

LU robotic hand1“We will design a user interface. It will let us give a command, like ‘grab something,’ and have the prosthetic hand respond only to grab. We want to make it more precise than that. Once we can figure out how to rotate the hand parts with better control, we can use the interface to simulate any reasonable motion,” said Zhu.

The development of a prosthetic hand and a working interface concludes the first segment of the overall rehabilitation project. The next steps include the incorporation of technology to interpret muscle signals, which operates the prosthetic hand. After that, the team may move on to using a helmet capable of collecting and deciphering brain signals to move the parts of the prosthetic hand.

The technology developed in the first steps of the project advances the overall goal of rehabilitation because similar methods will be used to build a device to reactivate an existing limb that no longer has mobility. The robotic parts which move the hand according to the brain’s signals will help to strengthen the weak connections between the patient’s brain and hand, increasing motor function.

“Being hit by a stroke is very common, and the victims all need to have rehabilitation to help them recover their motor functions. The movement of the hand is extremely critical. This is also helpful for other conditions, like Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS). There are millions of people who can be helped by this, and it all starts with just one hand,” said Zhu.

The project is one of eight unique research projects being supported by the CICE through gifts from three LU alumni. Alumnus Jack Gill, Larry Lawson and Anthony George each contributed $10,000 toward eight short-term projects that have expected completion dates of October 1, 2016.

A successful technology entrepreneur, venture capitalist, educator and philanthropist Gill is a 1958 graduate of LU, a Distinguished Alumnus, and holds a Ph.D. in organic chemistry from Indiana University.  Lawson attended LU in the 1960s, and, after switching careers from music to health care, founded eCardio Diagnostics in 2004, which became one of the Top 500 fastest-growing in America, 2009-2012. Ernst & Young tapped Lawson as its Health Science Entrepreneur of the Year in 2009.  George, a 1988 graduate of LU, was the founder and president of Control Dynamics a company he sold in 2010. He is CEO of Nautical Control Solutions a provider of integrated marine fuel management and vessel monitoring in real-time worldwide.