Building a robotic tomorrow

Scientists and researchers at ASU strive to go the distance and help others follow that same path. Department of Engineering professor Thomas Sugar develops human-technology integration. His innovations will help people who have had amputations by giving them robotics limbs. Now he is working on a special project called the "Four Minute Mile." From soldiers in the military to the regular person on the street, Sugar explains his research and how he hopes to create a better quality of life for those who need improved mobility.

What are you researching?

I have been researching human-machine integration at the ASU Polytechnic campus for around 15 years now. Basically what my students and I do is try to find how we can integrate robotic systems into people with prosthetics. We are working on a project which is called "Four Minute Mile." We are looking into using technology to help people run a mile in four minutes. Right now we are developing a jet-pack, which speeds up a person and we are hoping to get to that four-minute mark. I myself am known for creating prosthetics. I have worked on a prosthetic ankle which would allow a below-the-knee amputee to walk naturally and even run.

Where do you think your research can most effectively be applied?

It can definitely be applied to the medical field, helping people who have had a limb amputated because of heart disease or diabetes. But also, the technology can be applied in the military, helping people carry heavier loads. The current military load that a person is required to carry is 45 kilograms. Some of my students have started a company here in Tempe, Ariz. called SpringActive, to commercialize some of the research and make it available to the public.

With whom do you work?

Well, I’ve actually worked with both graduate and undergraduate students. In fact, currently I am working with a high school student from the ASU Preparatory Academy, which is located here on the Polytechnic campus.

What would you say is the most useful advancement of technology in your field?

Technology has progressed a lot in the last 15 years, since 1999 when the lab was founded. But I think the microprocessor and the shrinking of batteries has been a great leap in my field. In 1999, there were big, bulky PCs and now we have all that processing power in tiny chips. We use microprocessors from Microchip here in the valley. They’re very powerful and low power. What many people don’t realize is that first, a robot [robotic limb] has to be able to overcome the burden it possesses on the person it is on and then be able to help the person. The shrinking of batteries has also made a big difference in that now we can get the same power from a battery half the size and weight of a battery in 1999.

Reach the writer at or on Twitter @Professor_Boby.

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