University of Nebraska-Lincoln College of EngineeringOnline: Summer 2011
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UNL engineers help build walking device to innovate rehabilitative care

Carl Nelson photoCarl Nelson, UNL associate professor of mechanical engineering, specializes in developing robotics for medical devices, and teaching students those skills. Design, testing and documentation can take time, but recently one project—on a team with Madonna Rehabilitation Hospital—made great strides.

Introduced this summer, ICARE is an Intelligently Controlled Assistive Rehabilitation Elliptical system to improve a person’s ability to walk. In 2006 Judy Burnfield, Ph.D., PT—director of Madonna’s Institute for Rehabilitation Science and Movement and its Movement and Neurosciences Center—invited Nelson to collaborate on her ICARE idea. Nelson said robotic gait rehabilitation devices such as Locomat, an automated treadmill that rebuilds muscles after stroke, were found only in treatment centers that could afford its $300,000 price. He said Burnfield’s concept was to make the ICARE cost less than $10,000 to be more accessible for smaller clinics or individuals’ homes.

In 2007 their work was funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Education’s National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research (NIDRR). The ICARE team studied the features of elliptical trainers, seeking one that most closely replicates natural gait and would best allow modification.

According to an August 2011 Madonna news release, the ICARE provides customized propulsion to clients so it is easy to begin and maintain exercise in a walking-like movement pattern on the elliptical. The motorized control has a sensor that automatically adjusts the level of support depending on the individual's needs during exercise. The ICARE includes many features, such as an adjustable height seat, overhead body weight support system, ramp, wheelchair platform, clinician platform, modified foot pedals, stairs and grab bars that greatly increase accessibility for individuals who are weak, deconditioned, or who have balance problems.

Nelson’s tasks focused on the assistive motorization and sensors. He said the ICARE team designed a flat-belt pulley system, initially fabricated in UNL’s Engineering & Science Research Support Facility, to interface with the basic elliptical machine’s electronics. Lincoln, Neb., manufacturer SourceOne has produced the first commercial-ready ICARE systems to date.

  Icare walking device photo

Nelson praised the ICARE partnership, including the involvement of NUtech Ventures, a nonprofit UNL affiliate that helps commercialize technologies by connecting university researchers and the private sector.

“NUtech helped ICARE gain its patent and reach the marketplace,” said Nelson, who also holds a patent for an infant surgical table. So far, three ICARE systems have been sold, and Nelson—who frequently works with University of Nebraska Medical Center surgeons—said he’s glad to help Madonna advance rehabilitative care.

And if Nelson notes the ICARE's collaborative achievement on his Facebook page, one of his Facebook friends would surely like that status. She is a former Madonna patient who, after a car accident, had to relearn to walk. During her recovery, she used the ICARE system Nelson helped create.

It’s most wonderful to help people regain the ability to walk, Nelson acknowledged, though a further honor was the nomination of ICARE for a da Vinci Award, an international forum recognizing innovations that contribute to society.

"It’s a great feeling for our team," Nelson said, "knowing that the ICARE can add recovery opportunities for people who need them.”

- Carole Wilbeck


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