News Release

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

NIH announces national robotics initiative awardees

Six projects have been awarded funding to develop robots that can interact and work cooperatively with people and respond to changing environments in a variety of healthcare applications, the National Institutes of Health, collaborating with three other federal agencies, announced last week. The total amount for these projects over the next four years amounts to $4.4M, subject to the availability of funds.

The awardees for the National Robotics Initiative (NRI) will work on projects that would accelerate the development of the next generation of robotics, in what is called co-robotics. These projects include robots that help engineers better design prosthetic legs for amputees, miniature robot pills that help doctors diagnose and treat disease, and even microrobots that help researchers make artificial tissues.

"Robots that can adapt to new situations and support the work and activities that people do on a daily basis are not just the future of robotics, they are already here. This work could result in more successful surgeries, better and faster recovery for stroke patients, and improvements in drug development and testing," said Francis S. Collins, M.D., Ph.D., NIH director. "Affordable, accessible robotic technology can facilitate wellness and personalized, home-based health care, especially for the growing elderly and disabled population."

Along with the National Science Foundation, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and the United States Department of Agriculture, the NIH has chosen to fund six projects to help develop co-robotics that can assist researchers, patients, and clinicians.

  • Parallel, Independent Control of Microrobots for Microassembly of Tissues
    A significant obstacle for the development of drug therapies is that cells used for drug testing are not fully representative of cell behavior inside a living person. This project plans to develop and use micron-size bubbles as a robotic system that will be used for the assembly of artificial tissues. The creation of artificial tissues can improve drug discovery and testing, leading to higher-quality medical care. Aaron Ohta, University of Hawaii at Manoa
  • Advanced Biophotonics for Image-guided Robotic Surgery
    The ability to completely remove a tumor through surgery remains one of the most important factors for survival in patients with cancer. However, tumor removal from the brain is exceptionally difficult because leaving residual tumor tissue leads to decreased survival and removing normal healthy brain tissue leads to life-long neurological deficits. The goal of this research is to develop a robot that assists in automatically and optically guiding minimally invasive surgery. Eric Seibel, University of Washington, Seattle
  • Control of Powered Segmented Legs for Humanoids and Rehabilitation Robotics
    Current robotics that help rehabilitate gait use a set of patterns created from observations of how people walk. However, this does not allow the flexibility people needed in unstructured environments such as uneven pavement, grass, slopes, and stairs. The goal of this project is to uncover the principles behind the biomechanical design and neuromuscular control of human legs in a variety of gaits and to transfer these principles to the design and control of powered leg prostheses and robotic rehabilitation devices. Hartmut Geyer, Carnegie-Mellon University, Pittsburgh.
  • High Performance Robotic Below-Knee Prostheses
    In human locomotion, the ankle plays an important energetic role, and supplies substantially more positive power than the knee and hip. However, in the majority of existing below-knee prostheses, the prosthetic ankle joints are energy-passive, only storing and dissipating energy in use. The proposed project aims to develop a novel robotic actuator that can generate more power and store a larger amount of energy in a compact and light-weight robotic prosthesis, with the objective of significantly enhancing the health and life quality of the 400,000 trans-tibial (below-knee) amputees in the United States. Xiangrong Shen, University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa.
  • Personal Pill-Sized Soft Medical Robots for the Gastrointestinal Tract
    While pill-sized capsule endoscopes are increasingly used as wireless imaging devices for diagnosing diseases in the digestive tract, they are limited to sensing applications. This proposal aims to address these limitations by designing and manufacturing new pill-sized soft capsule robots that can be precisely controlled remotely to enable diagnostic and therapeutic functions in the digestive tract for clinical and potentially personal use. Metin Sitti, Carnegie-Mellon University, Pittsburgh.
  • Brain Machine Interface (BMI) Control of a Therapeutic Exoskeleton
    Robotic rehabilitation is an effective platform for retraining the sensing and motor skills of stroke patients. A robotic device enables accurate positioning of the impaired limb while simultaneously providing assistance and resistance forces and collection of motion data that can be used to characterize the quality of the patient's movements. This proposal plans to combine a human-robot interface with a non-invasive brain-machine to allow the patient to use their thoughts to control the movement of the robot to better rehabilitate their stroke affected upper limb. Marcia O’Malley, Gerard Francisco, and Jose Luis Contreras-Vidal, Rice University, Houston.

Robotics that quickly adapt to changes of the user and in the environment can further allow persons with disabilities to return to work, play instruments, perform sports, and engage in all aspects of human life with endurance and dignity. Mobility and manipulation aids can significantly improve the independence of the temporarily and permanently disabled.

NIH has long supported the development and use of robotic technologies through its 27 institutes and centers. This research will be supported by the grants EB016458-01; EB016457-01; HD075492-01; HD075493-01; NR014083-01; NS081854-01 from the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging (NIBIB), the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), the National Institute of Nursing Research (NINR), and the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS).

About the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD): The NICHD sponsors research on development, before and after birth; maternal, child, and family health; reproductive biology and population issues; and medical rehabilitation. For more information, visit the Institute’s website at

NINR supports basic and clinical research that develops the knowledge to build the scientific foundation for clinical practice, prevent disease and disability, manage and eliminate symptoms caused by illness, and enhance end-of-life and palliative care. For more information about NINR, visit the website at

NINDS is the nation's leading funder of research on the brain and nervous system. The NINDS mission is to reduce the burden of neurological disease — a burden borne by every age group, by every segment of society, by people all over the world.

NIBIB's mission is to support multidisciplinary research and research training at the crossroads of engineering and the biological and physical sciences. NIBIB supports emerging technology research and development within its internal laboratories and through grants, collaborations, and training. More information is available at the NIBIB website:

About the National Institutes of Health (NIH): NIH, the nation's medical research agency, includes 27 Institutes and Centers and is a component of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. NIH is the primary federal agency conducting and supporting basic, clinical, and translational medical research, and is investigating the causes, treatments, and cures for both common and rare diseases. For more information about NIH and its programs, visit

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