UNL engineering, Madonna collaboration is finalist for award

Released on 09/15/2011, at 12:00 AM
Office of University Communications
University of Nebraska–Lincoln
Lincoln, Neb., September 15th, 2011 —
Carl Nelson and the ICARE device
Carl Nelson and the ICARE device

Mechanical engineering professor Carl Nelson's fascination with the mechanics of human motion led him to a local collaboration that could have world-reaching potential.

With Madonna Rehabilitation Hospital, Nelson's work on developing a new Intelligently Controlled Assistive Rehabilitation Elliptical system is helping rehabilitation patients regain or improve their ability to walk. The elliptical assistive device was selected as a finalist for an international da Vinci Award. On Sept. 22 finalists for the award will gather at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Mich., for the award selection announcement.

The University of Nebraska-Lincoln/Madonna collaboration began in 2006 when Nelson met Judith Burnfield, director of Madonna's Institute for Rehabilitation Science and Engineering, and the rehabilitation institute's Movement and Neurosciences Center. He had been drawn to visit the rehabilitative institute's movement center because of his growing interest in rehabilitative engineering.

"Within a few months after that initial meeting Dr. Burnfield called me with an idea that she needed my help on as a mechanical engineer," said Nelson, an associate professor of mechanical engineering at UNL.

"Before I got to UNL I hadn't done anything with rehabilitative engineering -- all I had done was mechanical-engineering oriented, but when I was getting ready to look for jobs, I looked at areas in which there would be application; areas like medicine appealed to me, because of the interest in helping society and in potential funding opportunities. That's how I got interested in medical devices, and what draws me to rehabilitation – the human motion, the kinematics -- motion and how it relates to the science of mechanisms and robotics, and the ties between human motion and mechanical motion."

Dr. Burnfield's problem at the center was the automated treadmill and robotic gait rehabilitation devices – they weren't affordable, and at some $300,000 apiece, smaller treatment centers, clinics and home users were lacking access. Her concept was to make the ICARE device at a fraction of the cost -- $10,000 or less -- and with the help of Nelson and a grant from the U.S. Department of Education's National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research, they developed the ICARE system.

ICARE uses customized propulsion so clients can maintain exercise in a walking-like movement pattern on the elliptical machine. The motorized control has a sensor that adjusts the level of support depending on the individual's needs during exercise. The ICARE includes 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 people who are weak, out of condition, or who have balance problems.

The ICARE device recently gained the attention of Sen. Ben Nelson and local media at an open house and announcement. NUtech Ventures, the nonprofit UNL affiliate that helps commercialize technologies by connecting university researchers and the private sector, is helping Madonna identify a partner to ensure the technology is widely distributed to benefit those who need it.

Having the collaboration between UNL engineers and Madonna is a perfect partnership, Carl Nelson said.

"Dr. Burnfield has been great to work with and I've been fortunate to have Madonna as a partner. Without them, I wouldn't have a patient population, and they wouldn't be able to customize mechanics for specific individuals. So it's critical, for rehabilitative research in general, to have one another to help solve problems like this."

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

The da Vinci Awards are sponsored by the Michigan Chapter of the National MS Society and are intended to foster innovation by recognizing developments and research in adaptive and assistive technologies that plan an important role in helping people overcome physical limitations.  

The public can provide input in the da Vinci Award competition by voting on a People's Choice Award at http://youtube.com/davinciawards .

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