NSF CAREER Award for Sabelhaus

Researcher envisions safe robot-human interactions in health care

Andrew Sabelhaus
Andrew Sabelhaus (ME, SE)

Assistant Professor Andrew Sabelhaus (ME, SE) has earned a prestigious Faculty Early Career Development Program (CAREER) award from the National Science Foundation. Sabelhaus will use the funds to further his lab’s mission: to build safety smarts into soft robots for health care applications.

Sabelhaus sees soft robotics as potentially filling a gap. In the future, instead of waiting until they can afford to see a doctor, perhaps low-income patients with chronic diseases such as diabetes could visit a local pharmacy or community health center and head to a self-serve kiosk for routine blood draws, blood pressure checks, flu shots or nasal swabs. Theoretically, these relatively simple procedures could be performed by robots made of soft materials like rubber.

However, such robots would need to serve humans of all sizes and shapes, who are moving around in unpredictable ways. With each client, the robot would have to understand precisely where to point the needle (for example), how much pressure to apply when injecting it, and when to remove it. Sabelhaus and his team will apply advanced mathematics to design, program, build, and test a soft pneumatic robot arm that can safely complete such complex tasks. If these interactions could be made safe, he adds, “that makes health care less expensive and a lot more accessible.”

In addition, Sabelhaus will put some of the funding toward outreach efforts designed to recruit and retain under-represented students in order to build a more diverse robotics workforce. He will also integrate culturally sensitive safety specifications into the soft robotic touch research, to ensure past medical misapprehensions aren’t carried forward into the future.

For example, “There is a lot of evidence that says that doctors under-treat pain in African American patients,” Sabelhaus points out. “We want to make sure that our robots don’t get it wrong as well.”