Robotics at Columbia: Bringing Imagination to Market
Among the hundreds of innovations submitted to the Columbia Technology Ventures office each year, those that cover breakthroughs in robotics are a small but formidable cohort of technologies pushing the boundaries of traditional human-machine interaction, and shaping visions of a future where robots don’t simply make life easier—they transform it.
Advances in materials and artificial intelligence have sparked a rush of development and investment in robotics. Researchers are designing less expensive, adaptive robots that can sense and learn from the world around them, sparking new possibilities for robotic applications well beyond manufacturing.
CTV is building a strong portfolio of robotics innovations both pragmatic and futuristic— from robots designed to fill critical workforce gaps in fields like physical rehabilitation, to those that blur the line between human and machine consciousness, and others that tap the ingenuity of nature to develop novel sources of energy.
To see Columbia’s Robotics portfolio available for licensing please click here.
Robotics in Rehabilitation Medicine
One of the hottest areas for innovation in robotics at Columbia is the physical rehabilitation sector. The demands of an increasingly elderly population combined with the complex rehabilitative needs of members of the military have contributed to a critical shortage of physical therapy and related services. Since joining the Columbia faculty four years ago, Professor of Mechanical Engineering Sunil Agrawal has teamed with physicians at Columbia University Medical Center to bring his unique approach to robotics-driven rehabilitation to stroke and spinal cord injury patients, as well as children and adults with cerebral palsy and scoliosis.
Agrawal’s Tethered Pelvic Assist Device, or TPAD, is a cable-driven robotic system for patients with instability or weakness resulting from injury or stroke. Designed to be worn like a belt around the waist, TPAD registers imbalances as a patient walks, applying beneficial force to the pelvis to gradually build strength and improve balance and mobility. Similarly, Agrawal has developed a series of wearable gait-training exoskeletons—dubbed ALEX, for Active Leg Exoskeleton—aimed at correcting gait imbalances. “Every step you take has several stages, and if you’re not completing each one, it affects your mobility,” said Agrawal. “These devices can sense if you’re not swinging your legs far enough and actively correct that, just like a physical therapist would.”
- Read our Q&A with Sunil Agrawal here.
- See all technologies available for licensing from Sunil Agrawal’s lab.
Matei Ciocarlie, assistant professor of mechanical engineering, is developing solutions for the nearly one million people who have strokes each year in the United States alone, 75 percent of whom have temporary or permanent loss of hand or arm function. His MyHand orthosis, created in partnership with Joel Stein, chair of the Department of Rehabilitation and Regenerative Medicine at Columbia University Medical Center, is a lightweight glove that helps stroke patients regain lost hand strength and function.
MyHand is designed to be portable, allowing patients to continue therapeutic exercises at home, with the hope of improving access to physical therapy, speeding recovery time, and decreasing the cost of care. Stroke patients receiving rehabilitative services at Columbia have provided critical feedback to guide the refinement of MyHand over the past year. While MyHand was created for clinical applications, the underlying technology speaks to Ciocarlie’s interest in tackling one of the major unsolved problems in modern robotics—how to bring the complex mechanics of versatile manipulation to robotic hands. Human hands can distinguish items based on size, weight, texture, and other sensory parameters— capabilities that robotic hands have yet to replicate— and can easily select and manipulate a single item amid clutter. “Imagine a robotic hand that can reach into a bin of loose parts and find a specific item,” Ciocarlie said. “A dexterous, robotic hand with both the hardware and the software— the robot’s brain and the body—capable of completing such a task would have huge potential applications in logistics, e-commerce, and manufacturing.”
- Read our Q&A with Matei Ciocarlie here.
- See all technologies available for licensing from Matei Ciocarlie’s lab.
Robots in the Home, the Hospital, and the Cloud
Peter Allen, professor of computer science and head of the Columbia Robotics Laboratory, is working to advance a transformative paradigm—shared autonomy— for bringing robotic assistants into home environments. Robotic arms and other forms of automation are widespread in industrial settings, but adapting robotic technologies to the home— a highly variable, unpredictable environment—requires significant improvements in the ability of robots to cope with the unexpected.
Shared autonomy dictates that robots be empowered to do as much as possible, with intermittent input from humans. “We don’t need full autonomy, just enough that the robot can do certain tasks, and when it needs more information, a human can step in,” Allen explained. This provides a path for overcoming one of the major barriers to making robotic assistants—such as those capable of completing household tasks like retrieving and manipulating items—ubiquitous: a lack of robustness. “Right now, when the environment deviates from the model we’ve programmed the robot to understand, the system breaks down. Shared autonomy allows the robot to solve problems and continue functioning.” While Allen acknowledges that robots capable of truly analyzing and understanding the world around them won’t be a near-term reality, he and his collaborators are looking to a readily available trove of information to boost the intelligence of today’s robots—the cloud. “There’s so much data on the web that we can use to build the robot’s understanding of the 3D world we live in,” said Allen. “Robots that can tap into that information quickly gain knowledge that would otherwise take years.”
Another focus of Allen’s work is improving the utility of medical robots, and he has licensed two robotic surgical devices. The first, IREP, or Insertable Robotic Effector Platform, improves minimally-invasive surgery by combining multiple, flexible arms and a camera that provides 3D visual feedback with software that automatically tracks the instruments’ location. The second is a disposable in vivo camera for laparoscopic surgery that has successfully completed animal trials.
- Read our Q&A with Peter Allen here.
- See all technologies available for licensing from Peter Allen’s lab.
Biology is a design inspiration for Hod Lipson, professor of mechanical engineering at Columbia, whose work upends conventional ideas about the ability of robots to evolve, replicate, and learn. Lipson, who joined the Columbia faculty two years ago, recently worked with CTV to apply for patent protection on a new material that behaves much like a synthetic muscle. “The field of soft robotics is exploding,” said Lipson, “but nobody knows how to make a soft muscle.” Lipson’s innovation is an inexpensive, 3D- printable material that expands 900 percent in the presence of a low voltage current. This type of material is being tested as a means of creating robots with changeable morphologies and locomotion capabilities. But Lipson’s work extends well beyond robotic movement—his lab is pioneering robotic systems that possess a sense of self-awareness, an ability to assess their own status and identify problems. “Most robotic systems today have sensors trained on the external world, but our systems can look internally,” Lipson said. “There are countless commercial applications for this kind of self-awareness—imagine a bridge that can sense structural weaknesses or a jet engine that understands, on a very individual level, that maintenance is needed.”
- Read our Q&A with Hod Lipson here.
- See all technologies available for licensing from Hod Lipson’s lab.
Ozgur Sahin, associate professor of biological sciences and physics, wasn’t aiming to develop a robotics application when he observed the strong actuation potential of a common bacterial spore. “These spores expand and contract based on changes in humidity, and we noticed that these shifts in size produce considerable force,” said Sahin. “We realized that if we could harness this natural expansion and contraction, these spores could be used in an entirely new way—as actuators, or muscles, to power robotic applications.” Stable, durable, nearly weightless, and flexible, bacterial spores are being used in Sahin’s lab to create actuating films that quadruple in length when triggered by changes in relative humidity, and can lift roughly 50 times their own weight. Potential applications include use in exoskeletons and prostheses, generating force without the added bulk, weight, and noise associated with motor-driven devices.
Sahin is also testing these spore-driven actuators as engines, harvesting energy from evaporation as a continuous source of power. “Typically, energy technologies take a long time to commercialize, but we’ve made very fast progress in this area,” said Sahin.
- Read our Q&A with Ozgur Sahin here.
- See all technologies available for licensing from Ozgur Sahin’s lab.
Columbia Technology Ventures works closely with Columbia researches to commercialize early-stage technology innovations, connecting industry and investment partners with researchers to bring impactful, in-demand robotic technologies to market as quickly as possible. To see Columbia’s Robotics portfolio available for licensing please click here.
To learn more about Robotics at Columbia visit: http://www.roboticsatcolumbia.com/
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