When Robotics Seeks Solutions to Medical Challenges

Technology opens up new fields in the diagnosis of diseases and in the transport of organs. Four Spanish pioneers explain their work in this field

Communicating with machines and being able to control them through the mind is both a science-fiction dream and a medical challenge. However, Spanish researcher José del Rocío Millán is clear that this is where he wants to direct his work. He wants to get to handle robots without having to lift a finger.

The ultimate goal is to help, through a brain interface, to make life easier and more comfortable for people with motor disabilities. With this goal he has already designed several robots.

The first made it possible to control a wheelchair with the brain, and now, several years later, he has developed an exoskeleton that restores mobility to the legs, a prosthesis that helps the joints of the hand and a telepresence robot.

They all work in the same way: a rubber cap with electrodes is placed on the head of the disabled person; these electrodes are linked to a built-in computer and, without moving a finger, the brain commands the robot to make a series of movements.

In the case of the hand prosthesis, the objective is that it is the patient who teaches him how to perform the movements by means of a trial and error method. “Our brain has an error signal that warns when something is not right.

We want the robot to learn this way, autonomously. We decode this error signal instead of having to encode all the parameters. In addition, we use the signal from the brain of the person who handles the prosthesis, so this is who teaches him.

The telepresence robot, on the other hand, can allow people with a severe disability to leave their usual environment, go and see other places, even hundreds of kilometres away. “There are people who live prostrate in a bed, this robot teaches them what is beyond,” says the researcher.

The robot has a built-in camera and a screen, so the person who carries the cap with electrodes and handles it, can also see what the robots see,” says the director of the Neuroprosthesis Centre and the Institute of Bioengineering at the Institute of Technology in Laussane (Switzerland). “All the people who tested it were able to control the robot in a couple of days, including one who was in Seoul, thousands of kilometres away.

Drones for transporting organs

In December 2013, the Brazilian government announced its intention for Brazilian airlines to give priority to organ transport. The goal was to increase the 10 per cent of solid organs transported. One of the added difficulties in organ transplantation is transport.

The obstacles become more visible in cities collapsed at land level such as São Paulo, New Delhi, Cairo or Mexico City. For these cities, the Spanish company Dronlife has found a solution: drones that transport organs. “They are great metropolises, with infernal traffic, practically without road rules, where it is not possible to transport organs by land”, explains Cristina Jarabo, one of the creators of the drone.

“The air transport that is being used in these cities is mainly helicopters, but they are expensive and inefficient for carrying organs,” she adds.

Dronlife robots, without driver and with an autonomous navigation system, can reach a speed of 90 kilometers per hour and have autonomy of 60 minutes.

The project includes the installation of a base station in one of the hospitals, from where the location of the drone would be controlled. “Our priority has been to ensure the maximum safety of the container where the organ is located, which is why the drone has a redundant anchorage system,” explains Jarabo.

They have designed two types of refrigerated suitcases: large, 10 kilograms, for large organs such as lungs; and small (maximum weight of five kilograms) for hearts, corneas, kidneys -which account for 80% of transplants in the world- and for plasma, blood, tissues or special medicines.

Robots that rehabilitate arms

Recovering movement of the upper extremities (shoulders, elbows and hands) after stroke or cerebral palsy remains a challenge for today’s medicine. “There are a large number of machines and robots designed to recover the flexion and distension of the legs, but there was nothing for the arms.

When it became our goal, we discovered why: it was extremely difficult,” says Cecilia Garcia, an engineer and founder of Aura Innovative Robotics. Garcia and her team have developed a robot, Orte, that can do just that: regain shoulders and elbows.

This exoskeleton consists of two parts: the anatomical structure where the arm is placed and a software that records all movements, analyzes them and from where orders are given to modulate the movement of the arm. “It calculates the force, the type of rotation and the arc of the movement,” explains the project engineer, Marie André Destarac.

“One of the options allowed is for the physiotherapist to record a movement and for the robot to reproduce it in the patient,” García points out. In addition, as he has artificial intelligence, he is able to memorise the movements made by each patient and record their evolution throughout the sessions.

The priority function of this exoskeleton is rehabilitation after a stroke, upper limb paralysis or brachial plexus injury (damage to the nerve structure that transmits signals from the spine to the shoulder, arm and hand).

“Injuries in this area are very common in traffic accidents, so we think it would be one of the main targets,” explains Irene Pulido, a neurologist on the Aura team. “Orte’s job is for the patient’s muscles to relearn movement, one of the main problems after accidents”, explains Pulido.

Helmets to detect Parkinson’s

This robot, also developed by Aura, makes it possible to detect neurological diseases based on eye movement. With a simple design, it consists of a helmet with a camera and an ultra-fast sensor to measure small eye movements.

“These are movements that are imperceptible to the human eye and can only detect a machine at very high speed,” says one of the robot’s creators, Cecilia García. The helmet is connected to a computer that by means of a software system is able to detect if these movements correspond to some pathology.

“It is especially useful for Parkinson’s disease, vertigo or attention deficit disorder,” says the team’s neurologist, Irene Pulido. It is not a method of diagnosis, but rather a complement to the diagnosis, according to its designers.