Three undergraduate mechatronic students have turned their final-year project into award-winning research which could deliver a sense of touch to prosthetic limbs and next generation robots.
The students, Sevda Trifonova, Sreya Singh and Oliver Campbell, teamed up with their project leader Dr Ajay Pandey from QUT’s Centre for Robotics and Centre for Materials Science in developing a system for optoelectronic sensors that uses light to enable people with prosthetic arms to have a sense of touch.
The students worked together on their final-year research project, which was part of a Shark Tank-style pitch in the Bionics Queensland’s Bionic Challenge, and were awarded the $50,000 first prize in the Bionic Sensors category.
Dr Pandey said that there was extensive research being undertaken in robotics in the area of vision, but research into how the other senses fit into robotic technology was not as developed.
The three students, who will work on the project for the next year, developed a system using organic optoelectronic sensors which detect touch.
Team member Sreya Singh describes the system as like putting a sensor in the centre of an inflated balloon.
“Anywhere on the balloon that you press, the sensor will be able to detect exactly where you’re pressing because you’ll change the reflection of light everywhere,” Sreya said.
The project’s initial focus is to develop modular, accurate and cost-efficient sensors that will detect touch. They plan to develop the first prototype, a prosthetic hook, with partners Brisbane Prosthetics and Orthotics, based in Moorooka, and Contactile Inc., based in Sydney.
Dr Pandey said while this project offered a solution for sensing touch, further work needed to be done on how to incorporate this into a person’s nervous system in an effective and minimally-invasive way.
Sevda said, from the start of the project, the team could see the importance of developing tactile feedback and the relatively small amount of focus being given to that area.
“That’s one of the things that attracted me to this project – we’re all learning as we go,” she said.
“There’s lots of wiggle room . There’s lots of things you can try because they haven’t been tried before.”
Oliver said the project was a combination of two areas of interest for him.
“When I saw this project listed, I thought ‘this is something I want’,” he said.
“It can definitely apply to prosthetics but, down the track, there is a potential to apply this to robotics.
“I think there will be more humanoid robots, more robots working in proximity to humans, and giving them a sense of touch is a huge thing.”
For the students, the research project has served as an introduction into an area with tremendous opportunities.
Dr Pandey said globally, bionic devices were a $6.4 billion industry, with bionic limbs predicted to have higher rates of growth than bionic hearts or ears due to an increased number of patients requiring amputations as a result of diabetes, vascular disease and cancer.
For the students, the project has been a learning experience that could go on to shape the start of their careers.
Dr Pandey said the students had taken on the task that involved explaining their technology solution and its market possibilities.
“This builds on research that has been happening in my lab for many years, but what these guys have done is the real thing,” Dr Pandey said
“Because of them we won and they are the stars. What we have done through this challenge and with this teamwork is to show that it is doable.
“The students did the work of where this fits in and what is the market opportunity, and what is needed to really translate everything from idea to a minimally-viable product.
“It was a very valuable experience from a student learning point of view and also for researchers like me.”
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