Steve DeWeerth and Lena Ting, faculty members in the Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering at Georgia Tech and Emory University, are working to create better control of legged robots and human prostheses using biological inspiration. Their research centers on better understanding how the nervous system communicates with joints and muscles for movement and balance and then designing systems that closely replicate the naturally fluid movement of animals and humans. The research group’s goal is to help build robots with better mobility and prosthetics with natural movement more similar to a real limb.
One experiment involves a small robot that closely replicates the balance and movement of a cat to help the team determine how the body communicates to joints and muscles to help withstand sudden jolts or changes in footing. The little robot takes bumps and ground shakes while researchers gather data on how it avoids falling and what kind of pressures trigger a loss of balance.
Another project combines a real frog’s muscle with a virtual robotic leg. Force impulses simulating an outside stimulus (such as a sudden bump) are sent to the frog muscle by a computer and motor. The muscle then sends a signal back to the computer, and the virtual
model translates the reaction. The biological/computer fusion creates an electrical and mechanical information loop that provides researchers with a better idea of how the muscle reacts to certain mechanical stimuli.
And in research that could lead to novel strategies for tissue engineering, repair and replacement, Georgia Tech biologist J. Todd Streelman is looking at the jaws of different species of cichlid fish to better understand the mechanical properties of jaws and teeth under stress.
Some species of cichlids crush hard prey, like snails, while others do not. Streelman’s team is generating three-dimensional X-rays of the jaws to allow them to compare species and see the microscopic architecture that reinforces the jaws while the fish crush their prey. Using a technique commonly used by engineers to model mechanical properties, Finite Element Analysis, the team is able to determine which parts of the jaws are the most important in withstanding these extreme compressive forces.
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