Photo of Maria   Zuluaga Posada

Biotechnology & medicine

Maria Zuluaga Posada

Her robotic arm brace teaches, guides and corrects the hand movementsof people with motor disabilities

Year Honored

Latin America

Hails From

"While she worked as an au pair for a therapist in the United States, María Zuluaga discovered the challenges of therapies aimed at improving patients´ functional and cognitive abilities. She began to think about how technology, especially robotics, could deliver improvements to this field. And when a 16 year-old she was close to lost movement in his arm and was forced to learn how to execute certain daily activities, like writing, from scratch, this young Colombian rolled up her sleeves. The result was the design of a robotic arm that facilitates learning therapies, which has led to this mechatronic engineer´s inclusion in MIT Technology Review, Spanish edition´s Innovators Under 35 Colombia 2016.

The device designed by Zuluaga is an adaptable, robotic arm brace that guides the user through an exercise routine prescribed by a professional. The robotic brace will have three operating modes: full-guidance mode, correctional mode and feedback mode. One probable application would be for the therapist to ask the patient to draw a series of geometrical shapes. Initially, the device would guide the user´s arm through the correct movements. In a second step, the patient would perform the same exercises on their own, and the robotic arm would only perform corrections. In the final step, the device would notify the user of errors through a light display.

The initial design was Zuluaga´s final undergraduate project, but a short time later she had produced a prototype capable of guiding the user´s hand but without the ability to counteract the force applied by the brace. Now she is working on the design of a new, adaptable prototype focused on the first operating mode for clinical trials. The young innovator describes her plans: ""In approximately one year we will have a working prototype, ready for trials."" And the final product with all three operating modes could be ready ""within a maximum of five years.""

The project´s biggest challenge is to integrate all three operating modes into a single device which can adapt to any patient which is affordable, portable and easy for therapists to use. The adaptability has already been achieved. ""The brace´s design for the gripper was very difficult but from the start it was designed in order to adapt to different kinds of hands,"" the young engineer recalls. So the device can be adjusted to fit any size simply and easily through a part located at one end of the brace."