Dr. Eddie Grant is a poster professor for multidisciplinary research. The list of his specialties makes one stop to rethink the meaning of its word combinations: evolutionary robotics, computational fabrics, knowledge-based control systems, and biomechatronics. With a disarming Scottish twinkle in his eye, Grant hustles among departments, universities, hospitals, and military agencies, working with teams of experts, students, and end-users on projects that save work and money, increase safety, and—above all—bring hope.

Grant thinks the new joint graduate program in biomedical engineering is the most exciting thing that’s ever happened on campus. “In the next 30 years, engineers will make a huge impact on medicine. I came to America because it was all happening here. And with our new biomedical engineering partnership with the UNC School of Medicine, indeed ‘tis.”

As director of the Center for Robotics and Intelligent Machines, he is guiding the development of innovative, artificial muscle technology for stroke patients and other people with muscular rehabilitation needs. “As I watched my father-in-law just vegetate away after a stroke,” says Grant, “I thought about what could have been done to restore his mobility and function without hiring a full-time therapist.” Since Grant joined the NC State faculty in 1997, he has established the Rehabilitation Engineering Group, a collection of NC State and UNC-Chapel Hill faculty and doctors working together to develop and test biorobotic devices.

For the artificial muscles project, Grant is using his background in microcomputer control of pneumatic systems, collaborating with Dr. Carol Giuliani, a professor of human movement science at the UNC School of Medicine, and Dr. William Oxenham, an NC State professor of textile technology. Doctoral students at both universities combine their talents to round out
the project team.

Trilling his r’s with a charming Scots burr, Grant enthusiastically shows off his graduate students’ “rehabilitative robotics research.” In an earlier project, they had collaborated with engineering professors John Muth, Denis Cormier, and Ola Harrysson, to create a sensor-mounted, pipe-crawling, artificial snake to search through the rubble of collapsed buildings for survivors. For that undertaking, they developed artificial muscles that could imitate a snake’s sideways motion to propel itself forward and slither around corners.

 The snake project soon led Grant and student researchers Carey Merritt and Zheng Li back to stroke rehabilitation. With physical therapy direction from Dr. Giuliani, they knew that to mimic real muscle contraction, the artificial muscles must twist and thicken as they shorten. Oxenham, a braiding expert in the College of Textiles, figured that braided textile tubes pumped full of air would have those capabilities, and worked with Merritt and Li to provide the fabric “muscle tissue.” Under Grant’s robotics guidance, the team has built a working model of a wearable, pneumatically controlled musculature for the human arm and hand—the most complex set of muscles in the body.

At present, the test rig is cumbersome, Grant admits, but he believes they will eventually be able to use microscale and nanoscale technology to reduce it to a glovelike garment with embedded actuators to exercise a paralyzed arm and hand—as well as give the patient, for example,
the dignity of feeding himself with a fork. The computer-controlled device would enable researchers in the UNC Medical School’s Division of Physical Therapy to obtain “real, objective metrics for therapists to measure the results of exercise,” Grant explains. “Some experiments have shown that it may even be possible to regenerate the damaged part of the brain through repeated exercise.”

Ultimately, artificial muscles will be developed for other parts of the body as well. “The most difficult thing for a paraplegic to do is to stand up from a sitting position. That’s something I’d like our group to work on,” says Grant. Then there’s that inimitable twinkle in his eye again as he leans in and whispers, “I’m gettin’ a bit older ma’sel, y’know. I’ll be needin’ something t’help me down the road!”

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