SoftPro project will study and design soft synergy-based robotics technologies to develop new prostheses, exoskeletons, and assistive devices for upper limb rehabilitation, which will greatly enhance the efficacy and accessibility to a greater number of users. Building on solid methodological bases, SoftPro will produce a significant social impact, promoting advanced robot prosthetic and assistive technology “from bench to bedside”; but it will also introduce disruptively new, admittedly risky but potentially high-impact ideas and paradigms.
Although much has been done for developing advanced technology to bear upon real problems of individuals with sensorimotor impairments, the current situation is still far from satisfactory. Recent research in rehab robotics has enriched the functionalities of rehabilitation, assistive and prosthetic devices. However, the impact on people with real needs in the real world is still very limited.
The main problem SoftPro project aims to tackle is the scarce availability of robotics rehab technology and devices – in terms of their affordability, accessibility, robustness, usability, and ultimately usefulness. The main goal is to increase the cumulative benefits of assistive robotic technologies to our society, by enhancing at the same time their effectiveness and the number of people who will benefit from them.
By developing effective and accessible technology, SoftPro expects to achieve three kinds of impact
To reach the objectives the project stand on four main pillars:
The expected impact will be made possible by investigating how the artificial, i.e. intelligent machines, can physically interact and effectively “talk to” the natural, i.e. the human body. Understanding such a “language” is crucial not only to improve performance of rehab technology, but also to tackle the most difficult problem of making it simple – simple enough to be available. Simple is not easy, however, and the path to this ambitious goal is undeniably difficult. We think that we possess good clues about such a language, whose words we believe are sensorimotor synergies – and also that we have the scientific competence to further its understanding, and the technological prowess to translate it in a new generation of robotic assistive device.
the second pillar SoftPro stands on is soft robotics, i.e. the artificial implementation of the principles of impedance adaptation in natural motion control and its role in embodying intelligent manipulation and grasping behaviors. We will capitalize upon the technology of variable impedance actuation and control (where Europe is pioneer and leader), and on the availability of a new generation of “robot muscles”, i.e. actuators capable of tuning their stiffness and impedance to adapt to the environment interaction and to the task, to realize simpler, safer, more comfortable and more effective prosthetics and rehabilitation devices.
SoftPro will promote open access not only to data collected, but also to technology developed, to the purpose of building a community of users and developers which will in turn contribute to furthering our goals of making better robotics-enabled prosthetics and rehabilitation aids more easily accessible. Not only the
publications will be freely accessible, but also experimental data will be shared with the community for comparison and cross-checking, and software available on public online repositories under suitable open-source licenses .
To pursue the goal of making better robotic assistive technology accessible to more people, it is fundamental to start from real needs of patients, progress through the difficult scientific and technological path toward a simple solution that is accepted by patients and therapists, and finally make it into a product that is affordable, available, robust, usable, and economically viable. This goal is only possible to achieve if all the relevant expertise and capabilities are present. The SoftPro consortium includes world-leading clinical institutions where many patients are treated every day, and where preliminary collaborative work between participants has already shown great promise. The consortium includes most of the research groups who laid the neuroscientific and technological fundamentals underpinning the SoftPro approach. Thanks to a net of international collaborations and matching funding raised in other continents, not only European participants, but also some of the top clinical and research institutions worldwide are committed to SoftPro goals and will be actively involved. Finally, the Consortium has a numerous and qualified industrial component, with four SMEs which have sprung off academic research groups and are now established themselves in the best position to bring new technologies to fruition