August 13, 2020

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Human Physiology-Inspired Motor to Power Robots

Importance of Technology in Healthcare System
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Researchers from the University of Auckland’s Auckland Bioengineering Institute have received a significant boost in the latest round of Te Pūtea Rangahau a Marsden/Marsden funding for the project of mimicking physiology to make robots move more like humans.

According to a recent press release, Dr Bryan Ruddy received NZ$300,000 to develop a new kind of motor inspired by human physiology, and which could be used to power robots.

Powering Robots with Human Physiology-Inspired Motor

  • The team will turn three aspects of biological physiology for inspiration.
  • Firstly, they will use miniature motor units that will be layered in a way that mimics the structure of muscle fibres.
  • Fluid vessels will also be used to carry liquid metal “blood” that delivers energy.
  • Finally, they will power the systems in ways that mimic the way nerves send signals to muscles in movement.
  • High-performance electric motors might be ubiquitous, but the core design principles have been essentially static for nearly 100 years.
  • But with all their high power and efficiency, conventional electric motors are not well-suited to all applications, particularly those that are supposed to work with the human body.
  • If robots were to be useful in augmenting human behaviour or be able to support humans when the human body fails, robots need to be capable of muscle-like performance.
  • The problem with today’s electric motors is that they cannot match the force and agility offered by typical biological muscle. Therefore, a new approach is needed.
  • Human physiology might be a source of inspiration for bioengineers but it is incredibly complicated.
  • For instance, take any human heart, or more specifically the muscular architecture of the heart and how this affects electrical and mechanical function in normal and diseased hearts.

Understanding the Heart with the Help of a Novel Imaging System

This is the research focus of Professor Bruce Smaill, who was also awarded funding worth NZ$960,000, to get a better understanding of how networks in the heart affect its function.

As explained, the human heart is activated by the electrical waves that sweep throughout, which trigger contractions sustained by a network of coronary blood vessels that supplies oxygen, glucose and other substrates to the heart muscle.

These critical functions are modulated by autonomic nerves, which surround the heart. However, understanding their interaction and regulation is limited.

This is because the inside of the heart wall cannot be seen directly.

Understanding the relationships between these networks as well as how their disturbance can cause sudden death requires large scale high-resolution imaging to characterise tissue structure throughout the heart.

Moreover, it requires computational network models, which can be used to interpret the effects of this structure on heart function.

Their team had developed a novel imaging system that enables the 3D arrangement of muscle cells, blood vessels and nerves to be visualised in unprecedented detail, and across large regions of the heart.

This resolution makes it possible to replace previous continuum models of cardiac mechanical and electrical function with network models in much greater detail.

Because of these, aspects of heart performance, which previously have not been done, can now be investigated.

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