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Creating new avenues for intelligent independence

Members of the Collaboration on Rehabilitation Engineering and
                        Assistive Technology (UW-CREATe)

Members of UW-CREATe include (back row, left to right): Terry Richard, Kurt Kaczmarek, Nicola Ferrier, Frank Fronczak, Steve Haase, (front row, left to right): Jay Martin, Paul Bach-y-Rita and Mitchell Tyler. (23K JPG)

Assistive robots, voice control, sensory substitution, automatic locks, lights, climate control and superior handling sound like features that come standard on any SUV, but thanks to UW-CREATe, an innovative new research team based in the College of Engineering, wheelchairs and other assistive devices may soon have them, too.

Composed of eight faculty and staff members from mechanical engineering, biomedical engineering and rehabilitation medicine, UW-CREATe (Collaboration on Rehabilitation Engineering and Assistive Technology) is working to assist people with disabilities regain independence, control and productivity.

"This is a very challenging area of research, but there's a potential to do great things for people," said group member and Mechanical Engineering Assistant Professor Nicola Ferrier. "It's a very fruitful area of research."

And this research couldn't come at a more critical time: The National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research reports that disability ranks among the nation's biggest public health concerns, encompassing an estimated 52 million Americans.

This statistic makes it easy to understand why the researchers feel strongly about the group's goals, and for this reason, UW-CREATe is especially important to Mechanical Engineering Professor Jay Martin. His son, Liam, was injured in a diving accident two years ago and now uses an electric wheelchair.

"While spending three months in the hospital with Liam, he and I studied the technology he would be using and thinking about how it could be improved," said Martin. "We realized that relatively simple changes resulting from engineering and research applied to these technologies could provide improvements that would greatly enhance the lives of people with disabilities."

Martin began sharing his thoughts with his peers in mechanical and biomedical engineering departments, and they soon joined forces to focus on the design and development of leading-edge rehabilitative, assistive and adaptive technologies that allow those with disabilities to achieve greater independence.

For example, Martin and Mechanical and Biomedical Engineering Professor Frank Fronczak are exploring alternative power sources for powered wheelchairs. In addition to providing additional range, alternative power sources are likely to be lighter than current batteries and electric motors, which weigh more than a hundred pounds and dictate the entire design of the chair. It's this project in which Irving Langmuir Professor Noah Hershkowitz, an applied physics professor, group member and wheelchair user, is most interested. "I'm here to keep them honest, to provide a unique perspective," said Hershkowitz.

Other research projects address similar design concerns. Ferrier is exploring how robots can help individuals with motor disabilities physically interact in the real world, while Mechanical Engineering Professor Terry Richard's research in experimental mechanics and measurements is helping him develop design criteria for head-activated control systems used by quadriplegics. Fronczak and Ferrier are collaborating on an orthotic hand, a glove-like device that powers a formerly non-functional hand.

Rehabilitation and Biomedical Engineering Professor Paul Bach-y-Rita's interest in brain plasticity and its ability to recover even years after an injury adds a different element to the group. He's currently collaborating on projects that involve the brain's capacity to reorganize and recover from sensory injuries.

"There's enough people on campus, with enough expertise in a variety of areas — this group should have no problem providing next-generation solutions to a wide range of rehabilitation problems," said Bach-y-Rita.

As this very ambitious collaboration effort spreads across campus, UW-CREATe finds that their interest in the topic only grows. "I'm amazed at how easy it is for this group to work together," said Martin. "It has been important and enjoyable for all of us."