The NeuroMechatronics Lab. aims to bridge the gap between current robotic and exoskeleton technologies and the human neuromuscular system. We analyse the human nervous system from a mechatronics perspective and develop technologies that mimic and enhance human motion and sensing. Our main and most important goal is to use these research and technological advances to help people suffering from mobility impairments recover their independence.

My PhD research looked into reverse engineering human locomotion. I was trying to understand how the neuromuscular system parameterizes human gait over time. I was trying to answer one question. Can a single mechanical variable parameterize the gait cycle? Finding the answer to this question will improve the understanding of the human’s neuromuscular system and will enhance robotic prosthetic legs. If you want to know the answer look at the publications below ūüôā .




– Peer-reviewed journal papers –

A Perturbation Mechanism for Investigations of Phase-Dependent Behavior in Human Locomotion [IEEE Access Р2016]

D. Villarreal, D. Quintero, and R. Gregg. IEEE Access, 2015.

Abstract: Bipedal locomotion is a popular area of study across multiple fields (e.g., biomechanics, neuroscience, robotics, etc.). Different hypotheses and models have tried explaining how stable locomotion in humans is achieved. A perturbation capable of producing a shift in the nominal periodic orbit of the joint kinematics during locomotion could inform about the manner in which the human neuromechanics represent the phase of gait. In theory, this type of perturbation would modify the progression of the human subject through the gait cycle without deviating from the nominal kinematic orbits of the leg joints. However, there is a lack of publicly available experimental data with this type of perturbation. This paper presents the design and validation of a perturbation mechanism and an experimental protocol capable of producing phase-shifting perturbations of the gait cycle. The effects of this type of perturbation on the gait cycle are statistically quantified and analyzed in order to show that a clean phase shift in the gait cycle was achieved. The data collected during these experiments will be publicly available for the scientific community to test different hypotheses and models of human locomotion.

A Robust Parameterization of Human Gait Patterns Across Phase-Shifting Perturbations [IEEE TNSRE – 2016]

D. Villarreal, H. Poonawala, and R. Gregg. IEEE Transactions on Neural Systems and Rehabilitation Engineering, 2015.

Abstract: The phase of human gait is difficult to quantify accurately in the presence of disturbances. In contrast, recent bipedal robots use time-independent controllers relying on a mechanical phase variable to synchronize joint patterns through the gait cycle. This concept has inspired studies to determine if human joint patterns can also be parameterized by a mechanical variable. Although many phase variable candidates have been proposed, it remains unclear which, if any, provide a robust representation of phase for human gait analysis or control. In this paper we analytically derive an ideal phase variable (the hip phase angle) that is provably monotonic and bounded throughout the gait cycle. To examine the robustness of this phase variable, ten able-bodied human subjects walked over a platform that randomly applied phase-shifting perturbations to the stance leg. A statistical analysis found the correlations between nominal and perturbed joint trajectories to be significantly greater when parameterized by the hip phase angle (0.95+) than by time or a different phase variable. The hip phase angle also minimized transient errors about the nominal periodic orbit. Finally, interlimb phasing was best explained by local (ipsilateral) hip phase angles that are synchronized during the double-support period.

Evaluation of Transradial Body-Powered Prostheses Using a Robotic Simulator [P&O- 2016]

R. Ayub, D. Villarreal, R. Gregg, and F. Gao. Prosthetics & Orthotics International, 2016.

Abstract: Background: Transradial body powered prostheses are extensively used by upper limb amputees. This prosthesis requires large muscle forces and great concentration by the patient, often leading to discomfort, muscle fatigue, and skin breakdown, limiting the capacity of the amputee to conduct daily activities. Since body-powered prostheses are commonplace, understanding their optimal operation to mitigate these drawbacks would be clinically meaningful. Objectives: Find the optimal operation of the prosthesis where the activation force is minimized and the grip force is maximized. Study Design/Methods: A computer-controlled robotic amputee simulator capable of rapidly testing multiple elbow, shoulder, and scapular combinations of the residual human arm was constructed. It was fitted with a transradial prosthesis and used to systematically test multiple configurations. Results: We found that increased shoulder flexion, scapular abduction, elbow extension, and the placement of the ring harness near the vertebra C7 correlates with higher gripper operation efficiency, defined as the relation between grip force and cable tension. Conclusions: We conclude that force transmission efficiency is closely related to body posture configuration. These results could help guide practitioners in clinical practice as well as motivate future studies in optimizing the operation of a body-powered prosthesis.

Characterizing and Modeling the Joint-level Variability in Human Walking [Journal of Biomechanics- 2016]

A. Martin, D. Villarreal, and R. Gregg. Journal of Biomechanics, 49(14): 3298-3305, 2016.

Abstract: Although human gait is often assumed to be periodic, significant variability exists. This variability appears to provide different information than the underlying periodic signal, particularly about fall risk. Most studies on variability have either used step-to-step metrics such as stride duration or point-wise standard deviations, neither of which explicitly capture the joint-level variability as a function of time. This work demonstrates that a second-order Fourier series for stance joints and a first-order Fourier series for swing joints can accurately capture the variability in joint angles as a function of time on a per-step basis for overground walking at the self-selected speed. It further demonstrates that a total of seven normal distributions, four linear relationships, and twelve continuity constraints can be used to describe how the Fourier series vary between steps. The ability of the proposed method to create curves that match human joint-level variability was evaluated both qualitatively and quantitatively using randomly generated curves.

A Haptic Feedback System for Phase-Based Sensory Restoration in Above-Knee Prosthetic Leg Users [IEEE Transactions on Haptics- 2016]

A. Plauche, D. Villarreal, and R. Gregg. IEEE Transactions on Haptics, 9(3): 421-426, 2016.

Abstract: Persons with amputations lack important senses from the amputated limb. With the absence of proprioception in the amputated leg, amputees have far more difficulty maintaining a natural gait with balance and stability. The biggest determinant of temporal limb behavior during locomotion is the phase in the gait cycle, which can be estimated using the center of pressure (COP) under the feet. We hypothesize that feedback from the COP of the prosthetic foot can help restore a more robust sense of phase in transfemoral (above-knee) amputees. This paper presents a device that provides vibrotactile feedback based on the COP from the prosthesis, providing proprioception and potentially an improved sense of phase to the user. Experiments showed that the haptic device significantly decreased variability of stride length, step width, and trunk sway in novice (able-bodied) users of a transfemoral prosthetic leg during treadmill locomotion (N=9), indicating improved gait stability.

– Peer-reviewed conference proceedings –

Preliminary Experiments with a Unified Controller for a Powered Knee-Ankle Prosthetic Leg Across Walking Speeds. [IROS Р2016]

D. Quintero, D. Villarreal, and R. Gregg. In IEEE Int. Conf. Intelligent Robots & Systems, Daejeon, Korea, 2016.

Abstract: This paper presents the experimental validation of a novel control strategy that unifies the entire gait cycle of a powered knee-ankle prosthetic leg without the need to switch between controllers for different periods of gait. Current control methods divide the gait cycle into several sequential periods each with independent controllers, resulting in many patient-specific control parameters and switching rules that must be tuned for a specific walking speed. The single controller presented is speed-invariant with a minimal number of control parameters to be tuned. A single, periodic virtual constraint is derived that exactly characterizes the desired actuated joint motion as a function of a mechanical phase variable across walking cycles. A single sensor was used to compute a phase variable related to the residual thigh angle’s phase plane, which was recently shown to robustly represent the phase of nonsteady human gait. This phase variable allows the prosthesis to synchronize naturally with the human user for intuitive, biomimetic behavior. A custom powered knee-ankle prosthesis was designed and built to implement the control strategy and validate its performance. A human subject experiment was conducted across multiple walking speeds (1 to 3 miles per hour) in a continuous sequence with the single controller, demonstrating its adaptability to the user’s intended speed.

Unified Phase Variables of Relative Degree Two for Human Locomotion. [EMBC- 2016]

D. Villarreal and R. Gregg. In IEEE Engineering in Medicine and Biology Conference, Orlando, FL, 2016

Abstract: A starting point to achieve stable locomotion is synchronizing the leg joint kinematics during the gait cycle. Some biped robots parameterize a nonlinear controller (e.g., input-output feedback linearization) whose main objective is to track specific kinematic trajectories as a function of a single mechanical variable (i.e., a phase variable) in order to allow the robot to walk. A phase variable capable of parameterizing the entire gait cycle, the hip phase angle, has been used to control wearable robots and was recently shown to provide a robust representation of the phase of human gait. However, this unified phase variable relies on hip velocity, which is difficult to measure in real-time and prevents the use of derivative corrections in phase-based controllers for wearable robots. One derivative of this phase variable yields accelerations (i.e., the equations of motion), so the system is said to be relative degree-one. This means that there are states of the system that cannot be controlled. The goal of this paper is to offer relative degree-two alternatives to the hip phase angle and examine their robustness for parameterizing human gait.

A Unified Parameterization of Human Gait Across Ambulation Modes.  [EMBC- 2016]

K. Embry, D. Villarreal, and R. Gregg. In IEEE Engineering in Medicine and Biology Conference, Orlando, FL, 2016.

Abstract: This paper introduces a novel gait parameterization method that models gait kinematics as a continuous function of gait cycle phase, walking speed, and ground slope. Kinematic data was recorded from seven able-bodied subjects walking on a treadmill at twenty-seven combinations of walking speed and ground slope. Convex optimization was used to determine the parameters of a function of three variables that fits this experimental data. This function may be able to provide desired trajectories to a virtual constraint controller over a continuum of gait phases and ambulation modes. This could allow for a single, non-switching controller to control a prosthetic leg for a variety of tasks, avoiding many of the problems associated with the ubiquitous use of finite state machines in prosthesis control.

A Perturbation Mechanism for Investigations of Phase Variables in Human Locomotion. [ROBIO – 2015]

D. Villarreal, D. Quintero, and R. Gregg. in IEEE Int. Conf. Robotics & Biomimetics (ROBIO), Zhuhai, China, 2015.

Abstract: The concept of a phase variable, a mechanical measurement of the body’s progression through the gait cycle, has been used to parameterize the leg joint patterns of autonomous bipedal robots, producing human-like gaits with robustness to external perturbations. It was recently proposed that the kinematic response of humans to a perturbation could also be parameterized by a phase variable. In order to properly study this phase variable hypothesis with human subjects, a custom perturbation mechanism was built to cause phase shifts in the gait cycle. The main goals of this study are to introduce the design of a novel perturbation mechanism and experimentally demonstrate its ability to effect phase changes during the gait cycle.

A Survey of Phase Variable Candidates of Human Locomotion. [EMBC Р2014]

D. Villarreal and R. Gregg. IEEE Engineering in Medicine and Biology Conference 2014, Chicago, IL

Abstract: Studies show that the human nervous system is able to parameterize gait cycle phase using sensory feedback. In the field of bipedal robots, the concept of a phase variable has been successfully used to mimic this behavior by parameterizing the gait cycle in a time-independent manner. This approach has been applied to control a powered transfemoral prosthetic leg, but the proposed phase variable was limited to the stance period of the prosthesis only. In order to achieve a more robust controller, we attempt to find a new phase variable that fully parameterizes the gait cycle of a prosthetic leg. The angle with respect to a global reference frame at the hip is able to monotonically parameterize both the stance and swing periods of the gait cycle. This survey looks at multiple phase variable candidates involving the hip angle with respect to a global reference frame across multiple tasks including level-ground walking, running, and stair negotiation. In particular, we propose a novel phase variable candidate that monotonically parameterizes the whole gait cycle across all tasks, and does so particularly well across level-ground walking. In addition to furthering the design of robust robotic prosthetic leg controllers, this survey could help neuroscientists and physicians study human locomotion across tasks from a time-independent perspective.