Dr. Raye Yeow is an Assistant Professor with the Department of Biomedical Engineering at the National University of Singapore since 2012, and an affiliated Principal Investigator with Singapore Institute for Neurotechnology and Advanced Robotics Center.
He received his B.Eng. (2006) and PhD (2010) in Bioengineering from National University of Singapore, and his postdoctoral training in the BioRobotics Lab at Harvard University (2012). He was awarded the NUS Overseas Postdoctoral Fellowship (2010), NUS Young Investigator Award (2014), Yamaguchi Medal (2015) and MIT Technology Review Innovators Under 35 Asia (2016).
His research interest is in developing soft wearable robotics for various healthcare applications. He is also a scientific advisor to four start-up companies working on medical wearables. I spoke to Prof. Raye at the Emtech Asia 2016 where he was awarded the MIT Review Innovators Under 35 Asia.
His team at NUS has developed a new lightweight smart rehabilitation device called EsoGlove which can restore hand movements in patients who have lost their hand functions due to injuries or nerve-related conditions, such as stroke and muscular dystrophy.
Can you tell us more about the technology you are working on – soft, robotic glove?
The soft robotic glove (aka EsoGlove) detects muscle signals and guides the hand to perform rehabilitation exercises. It is made entirely of soft materials and fabric, and it provides comfortable and natural finger movement assistance through its soft pneumatic bending actuators (Using pressurized air to control movement of hands).
It is also washable and highly robust. Once pressurized air enters the actuators, they will bend and assist the patient’s hand in therapy exercises, just like how a therapist assists the patient in exercises. This robot-assisted therapy can be programmed to exercise each individual finger or exercise the whole hand into different grasping modes, depending on the patient’s requirements. Unlike traditional hard robotic devices, the EsoGlove can be utilized under fMRI conditions with negligible interference.
What are the various functions it can assist?
The EsoGlove can help stroke patients move their paralyzed hands through continuous robot-assisted hand therapy exercises, and control their weak hands to perform common daily tasks through detecting user intent from residual muscle signals. Hemiplegic patients can also mirror-control the robotic glove on their affected paralyzed hand, with a sensor glove on the unaffected contra-lateral hand.
How is it a value-add for rehabilitation patients?
For patients to restore their hand functions, they need to go through rehabilitation programmes that involve repetitive tasks such as gripping and releasing objects. These exercises are often labour intensive and are confined to clinical settings. EsoGlove is designed to enable patients to carry out rehabilitation exercises in various settings – in the hospital wards, rehabilitation centres and even at home. Equipped with technology that can detect and interpret muscle signals, EsoGlove can also assist patients in daily activities, for instance by guiding the fingers to perform tasks such as holding a cup.
What were some of the obstacles you faced while making this product?
In the course of designing the robotic glove, the assistive force output of the soft actuators was a major obstacle. Due to the use of soft materials, the force output of the glove will not be able to match the relatively higher force output of traditional cable-driven or electromechanical hand rehabilitation device.
Hence, we went about many rounds of iteration to redesign the internal pneumatic networks, surface patterning, fabric reinforcement and material type of the soft actuators, while making sure to reduce the actuator size so as to minimize bulk. The final outcome is a soft actuator that is highly streamlined and yet able to provide sufficient forces to assist the fingers into motion.
Worldwide, there is a lot of interest in robotics for rehabilitation and for assisting ageing population. How is your product unique from the others?
The EsoGlove is a robotic glove embedded with flexible and lightweight soft actuators (170g). They do not constrain the joints’ natural movements as compared to traditional ‘hard’ devices, which consist of linear actuators that are rigid and bulky. As compared to cable-driven devices, such as Saebo Glove and Gloreha, the actuators do not require joint alignment. They are able to generate well-distributed forces on the fingers, which minimize the localized pressure points that would possibly cause joint hyperextension and subluxation. The soft components of the EsoGlove increase patient comfort during use and minimizes the risk of injury from excessive mechanical forces.
What do you think is the future of robotics in medical devices or healthcare industry?
The future of robotics in the healthcare industry will likely be in medical wearables. One key trend will be customizability. Medical wearables of the future need to be highly customizable in order to suit different patient anthropometry, so that comfort is ensured during donning of the wearables. A fitting assistive wearable will also provide a more optimal robotic assistance to the user’s movement.
Another potential trend will be compliance. Medical wearables, which are capable of compliant actuation through new control algorithms or soft materials, will provide safer interactions with the human user, without exerting unnecessary large injurious external forces.
Perhaps the next key trend will be co-operation. Medical wearable robots that can co-operate with the human patient to do therapy exercises, and at the same time, track the progress of the patient and feed this information back to the clinical team. And also, medical wearable robots that can cooperate with surgeons to take over simple repetitive tasks such as suturing or even passing the instruments, such that the surgeons can focus on the more important surgical procedures.
As a principal investigator with the Advanced Robotics Center and the Singapore Institute for Neurotechnology (SINAPSE), what are the other projects you are working on?
In the pipeline, we are building soft wearable robots that can help treat rheumatoid arthritis, to assist various other joint movements such as elbow, shoulder and knee exercises, and also to protect the wrist and hip joints from fractures especially due to falls in old age. We are also working on lightweight attachable soft robotic arms for augmented task performance.
So you have a spin-off company from this work? What are your future plans?
Yes, we have already spun off a company, Roceso Technologies Pte Ltd, from this work. The future plan will be to seek funding support from government grants and investors to conduct large-scale longitudinal clinical trials and to commercialize the EsoGlove. The company will also commercialize future soft wearable robots developed from my lab, as part of its product line.