News @ the Beach

Robot’s Rehab Role

Robots will play an important role in rehabilitating the future according to mechanical and aerospace engineering’s Emel Demircan, working with the lab’s new robotic arm named Jaco2 (below).


Demircan’s research focuses on the applications of dynamics and control theory for the simulation and analysis of biomechanical and robotic systems. Her interests include experimental and computational approaches for the study of human movement, rehabilitation robotics, sports biomechanics, human motion synthesis, natural motion generation in humanoid robotics and human motor control.

“My research is at the intersection of robotics and biomechanics,” said Demircan, who comes to CSULB after two years at the University of Tokyo following her doctorate at Stanford in 2012. “I create algorithms to handle the intersection of these two fields. The goal is to enhance human health.”

The title of her doctoral dissertation was “Robotics-Based Synthesis of Human Movement.” The aim of her research is the use of robotic tools as well as computational and experimental tools to understand human movement. “I use them to enhance human health,” she said. “I want to improve the design and importance of robotic systems.”

When most people say “robotics,” they think bipeds like the Terminator or C3PO but that is changing.

“Today, we use robots everywhere,” said Demircan. “That is as true for underwater as it for outer space. It is true for hospitals and homes. My expertise is in using robotics and biomechanics for applications like rehabilitation. What excites me about my research is its applications and that it is highly interdisciplinary.” Demircan works with colleagues in bioengineering and computer science, with electrical engineers and orthopedic surgeons.

The rehabilitative robot of the 21st century needs Demircan’s algorithms to understand human adaptation to assistive devices. “Look at Honda’s famous Asimo robot,” she said. “It is a cute little biped robot I worked on at Stanford. What I was trying to do was to understand human skills including manipulation and motion skills in order to apply that understanding to controlling robots.”

Tomorrow’s rehabilitative robots will wield an influence on human health that crosses borders and cultures.

“If I can better understand human physiology as well as human adaptation to assistive devices, I can better help the next generation to design and control such assistive devices,” she said. “In Japan, we see an aging population with a high demand for robotic systems. For instance, there is a Japanese carmaker who is interested in building lower-limb exoskeletons which reduce body weight so the operator can walk and even carry heavy weights. They can be used by the elderly or by factory workers.”

Sports biomechanics is another source of excitement for Demircan.

“When I was researching my doctoral dissertation at Stanford, I worked with professional athletes,” she recalled. “We motion-captured former 49er quarterback Alex Smith. This is the model I use to reproduce motion dynamics. We even worked with the Stanford golf team. The goal with both was to look at their different profiles. First we would measure the player’s height and weight. Then we would use their muscular skeletal models together with sensory information to reproduce the player’s movements. Then we would create algorithms to improve the subject’s performance. What is even better is that we can project this information back to the players so they can correlate the movement in real time.”

Demircan’s Human Performance and Robotics Lab has 11 students enrolled, all honor students and most of them graduates, plus representatives from most of the College of Engineering’s departments.

“This is what I like most about this research, its multidisciplinary nature,” she said. “In terms of equipment, the lab comes equipped with a motion-capture system and a customized three-fingered robotic arm. There are several students who are highly interested in doing the coding to program the robot to perform real tasks.”

Student research projects in the new lab reflect the future of rehab robots. “One student project deals with quantifying task-based neuromuscular control which translates to controlling robots,” she explained. “We want these robots to monitor, analyze and predict human movement.”

Another project looks at simulation-based active practice and training designs to prevent injuries.

“The student is expected to build an active assistive device and training program which we will test in the simulation environment,” said Demircan. “If it works, we will build the real product. Another project is titled ‘Happy Knees’ that seeks to find the optimum posture for a human to minimize loads on the knee joints. We have a cross-country athlete who studies the bio-mechanics of running.”

“It’s my research but it’s also part of my life,” she added. “I like to work with humans. I like to improve the quality of human life. I hope the algorithms we create in our lab will, one day, touch the lives of many people.”