Contineo Robotics: Helping Hands That Save Lives

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Products in development at Contineo Robotics, Sykesville, Maryland, take the motto “to serve and protect” to a whole new level. While the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Revolutionizing Prosthetics (RP) programs’ robotic arms aspire to restore function to persons with upper-limb mobility impairments and amputations, Stuart Harshbarger’s fledgling company puts a different spin on the DARPA principles he helped develop while serving as program manager and systems integrator for phase one of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (JHU APL), Laurel, Maryland-led RP 2009 (RP2009) program. In 2006, JHU APL received a $30.4 million contract to begin the first phase of the RP2009 program, which culminated in the development of the Modular Prosthetic Limb (MPL).

Contineo Robotics is the brainchild of Harshbarger and his partner, Matt Kozlowski, PhD, another former member of the RP2009 leadership team. It was established two years ago for the purpose of moving the DARPA research efforts more efficiently through the technology transfer process and into clinical use.

“Although the limbs coming out of the DARPA-sponsored APL program were already performing surprisingly well, it was clear that the per-system cost was going to be very high,” Harshbarger explains. “The only way I could see to drive the cost down was to find a way that we could re-use some of the components across new applications.”

Contineo Robotics began working on hardware to improve the capability of robots that deal with explosive devices, hazardous materials, or hazardous situations, with the end goal of substituting the robots for the skilled operators who would otherwise be exposed to such threats.

The company is preparing to rollout the complete Contineo family of robotic technologies at the upcoming National Defense Industrial Association (NDIA) Ground Robotics Capabilities Conference & Exhibition, April 29â€"May 1, 2013, in Atlanta, Georgia.

That family will include robotic hands called conformal and compliant end-effectors, which function very much like a human hand. However, “they’re more rugged, with fewer digitsâ€"typically three-fingered but in some cases, five-fingered,” Harshbarger says. “They’re industrialized to be able to handle the abuse at the end of the robotic arm. The fingers move like ours; they have the same trajectory, they’re compliant.”

Contineo Robotics is also building bi-dexterous arm systems for robotic applications. “The two-armed system has intuitive control methods that allow an able-bodied user…to control one or two arms, and also the natural-like end-effectors to do tasks that normally the robot would be unable to do using existing technology,” he explains.

In addition to the robots’ value in reducing injuries to military personnel tasked with dealing with explosive devices, they can also be useful in homeland security applications.

“We are also working with some third-party companies to adapt them for industrial applications, and using the same technology for agricultural applications and in the mining industry, again shielding humans from the most hazardous tasks of a high-risk job.”

Contineo Robotics still has a strong interest in prosthetics and rehabilitation technology, Harshbarger says. “I think it’s fair to say that there’s not yet a centralized formal program to transition the very exciting work from the RP four-year program into clinical use, but there has been a tremendous amount of progress translating certain aspects and pieces of that technology into practice.”

He points to the Michelangelo Hand recently released by Ottobock, headquartered in Duderstadt, Germanyâ€"JHU APL’s primary commercial transition partner in phase one of the RP2009 program. He also cites the targeted muscle reinnervation (TMR) surgery technique developed by Todd Kuiken, MD, PhD, director for the Center for Bionic Medicine and director, Amputee Services for the Research Institute of Chicago (RIC), Illinois, and demonstrated with the early DARPA subjects. TMR has now been used in more than 40 cases by institutions worldwide.

Both are evidence that the RP programs continue to impact lives outside of their original goals, “providing the promise of better long-term outcomes, the promise of better musculoskeletal health, and neurological stability of the peripheral nerves,” Harshbarger says.

“In the absence of a coordinated national program, there are a lot of promising pieces that are getting out there. The individual researchers are highly committed to that and that’s really exciting. The work is continuing with real patients and proving the technologies, showing promise both at the targeted [muscle] reinnervation level and also…at the cortical interface level at multiple sites.”

Contineo Robotics has a number of ongoing collaborations with JHU, Baltimore, Maryland, and JHU APL, including the development of an active hand exoskeleton that could be used in trauma recovery, for hand therapy, and for stroke and other neurological rehabilitation applications, according to Harshbarger.

“That concept is again built upon the themes and a number of the lessons learned about the human hand and grasp function that came from the prosthetics work,” he says.

“I had really hoped that there would be a concentrated national effort that would help move the modular prosthetic limb system, as a whole, from the demonstrations to clinical use faster than we’ve seen, but I’m very optimistic because I see things like the Michelangelo hand, novel socket liner and electrode technologies, Orthocare Innovations’ [edison] adaptive vacuum pump and its magellan foot/ankle system, the TMR surgeries and the continuing work in the area of brain implant technologies, our own hand exoskeleton technologies, Jonathan Kuniholm’s The Open Prosthetics Project, and a number of other efforts that keep moving everything forward. That makes it all very encouraging and exciting.”

â€"Judith Philipps Otto

Editor’s note: The two prosthetic arm projects associated with the DARPA RP programs continue to progress, albeit along different trajectories. To learn about these developments, read, “DARPA’s RP Arms Progress, Nurture Related Wonders.”