Control a robot with your mind. Bring unresponsive limbs to life. Engineer tasty, nutrient-rich food tailored to an individual’s biometrics.
These are just a few of the robotics projects that Columbia University PhD students are working on in their cramped, underground labs.
Business Insider got inside for a rare tour of the spaces, and saw machines that are attempting to make broccoli taste like pizza, allow humans to control robots with their eyes, and help partially paralysed patients move again.
Take a peek inside.
This bionic glove was built for stroke patients who've lost the ability to open their hand and grasp things. The system uses an EMG wristband that detects signals from muscles in the patients' forearm, and triggers their hand to open and close.
Above, PhD Student Sangwoo Park demonstrates the tech while another colleague controls the glove's grasp function. With the finished product, however, patients would control the device from their own arm.
The hope is that this system will help patients do more two-handed tasks for themselves, like opening a jar, putting toothpaste on a toothbrush, cutting vegetables, or carrying a pot with two handles.
PhD student Iretiayo Akinola and his colleagues are developing an EEG headset that can communicate with a robot (the white object on the right). The system works by reading Akinola's brain signals via his electrode cap.
First, Akinola focuses his gaze on one of a few blinking spots on a computer screen. Those spots each mark a different area of a room where the robot is programmed to work. When Akinola zeros in on one of the locations, the EEG cap figures out where he's looking. Then the computer transmits a message to the robot, and it rolls off to clean that area of the room.
The system is still being perfected. When BI visited the lab, the robot was having technical difficulties, but the team hopes the technology will eventually allow humans and robots to work together more efficiently.
PhD student Tianjian Chen is creating this early-stage prototype for NASA to use at the International Space Station in new free-floating Astrobee robots. He's hoping to design a more efficient robotic hand for the Astrobees that can grasp big things like a hammer or a ball, but also hold tiny objects with its pincher grasp (which is shown this footage from Columbia's Robotic Manipulation and Mobility Lab).
Chen says the prototype requires 'very wise mechanical designs' so that the machine will be energy efficient. Ideally, the hand will operate using a single motor.
PhD student Jonathan Blutinger works in Columbia's 'Creative Machines' lab, where researchers are building a food-printing robot that they hope one day could engineer broccoli to taste like pizza. It could also customise meals to cater to nutritional deficiencies or print out specialised foods designed to help people lose weight.
'It will be the next diet,' Blutinger says.
The researchers are working with blue diode lasers to make the kitchen printer a reality. They're also using mirrors to fine-tune the locations where lasers would hit the food, which they say could give chefs a lot more control over where heat lands.
The Creative Machines lab is printing out these black, mesh-wrapped muscles that enable robots to move without the help of air pumps, compressors or other bulky external equipment. All they need is a power source. (This 3D printed technology isn't ready for humans, yet.)
Too creepy? You be the judge.
This gadget is designed for patients with ALS (Lou Gherig's Disease), a terminal illness that often causes neck muscles to become too weak to hold up a person's head. That makes it tough for them to see their surroundings or even swallow. Using a joystick, the patient (or a companion) can lift their head with the help of this brace.
The system is designed for stroke patients, as well as elderly people and those with cerebral palsy. As a patient walks on the treadmill, a researcher can send jolts of force through the cables running up and down their leg to re-train the way a person walks and correct errors in their steps. It has been tested on two stroke patients already, who both improved their gait after 15 sessions.