Department of Mechanical Engineering Assistant Professor Tommaso Lenzi has been awarded a National Science Foundation Faculty Early Career Development Program (CAREER) award. The CAREER program is one of the NSF’s most prestigious award programs, offering 5 years of support to early-career faculty with the potential to serve as academic role models in research and education. The research grant, entitled “Bio-inspired Multi-joint Design and Control for Efficient and Lightweight Wearable Robots” will provide new knowledge related to wearable robotics by using bio-inspired actuation systems that concurrently assist multiple joints, much like human muscles.
Existing exoskeletons are heavy and inefficient, which makes them impractical for use in everyday life. The main source of that weight is the many electrical motors used for each limb, for example three to four motors for each user’s leg with each motor adding substantial weight. With more than 10 million Americans living with a physical disability, creating lighter and more efficient robots has the potential to improve their mobility and independence.
Human ambulation is already highly efficient and stable, making it a valuable model to imitate in creating a more efficient system. The passive dynamics of the leg and the elastic properties of the muscles combine with muscles spanning multiple joints, actively transferring energy between them. Lenzi will be studying how humans adapt to the assistance concurrently provided by a powered exoskeleton to multiple leg joints, on different anatomical planes, or during different ambulation activities. This will allow him to create prosthesis and exoskeletons that will optimize the energy exchange across multiple joints, using a single motor to assist multiple joints, much like in the human body.
“We want to make prosthesis and exoskeletons so lightweight and practical to use that people will want to wear them every day,” said Lenzi. “I am excited about taking the powered exoskeleton from the lab to the real world where people need them the most.”
Professor Lenzi is the Director of the Bionic Engineering Lab at the University of Utah, which was founded in 2017. Their research aims to develop bionic technologies and systems to help people move and live independently. For more information about Prof. Lenzi’s research, visit the Bionic Engineering Lab website. You can also view the award abstract on the NSF website.