Horseback riding as a form of physical therapy for cerebral palsy patients has been well-respected and used for decades. Known as hippotherapy, it can improve coordination, balance and strength as the patient responds to the horse’s motions.

But horses are not accessible for everyone. They’re expensive. They require food and shelter. They need space. Some patients are scared of them.

Electronic hippotherapy simulation devices—part of a field called biomechatronics—have been created in recent years to take the place of horses. But the devices have drawbacks. They don’t feel authentic. There’s no interaction between horse and riders, no feeling the moving muscles of a horse underneath. In the end, they’re a machine, not a living animal.

“They use electrical motors or some kind of mechanical system. It’s sometimes noisy,” explained Erkan Kaplanoglu, associate professor in the College of Engineering and Computer Science at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.

But Kaplanoglu is trying to change that.

An expert in biomechatronics, he uses technology—like a mechanical horse—to solve physiological issues such as making rehabilitation and exercise accessible for everyone. At the eighth International Cerebral Palsy and Development Disorder Conference, Kaplanoglu will introduce some of these technological solutions.

A patient demonstrates the MarHippo system, sitting atop the simulation device and playing its game.

Working with health sciences faculty members at Marmara University in Istanbul, Turkey, Kaplanoglu has helped design a better simulation device— the MarHippo. Its pneumatic muscles don’t feel so robotic. “They feel like a real horse,” he said.

Created specifically for children, MarHippo is designed to keep its younger users’ attention. Instead of just riding on a device that mimics a horse, it’s set up like a game with a screen out front providing visuals such as meandering down a trail. It has a saddle—sort of like an electric bull—a handlebar to hold and stirrups for feet.

MarHippos also are programmable for each patient, catering to the child’s individual needs. Through Bluetooth sensors, a patient’s muscles are monitored for the movements in real time.

Biomechatronics at UTC

UTC students are getting experience with biomechatronics designs through an on-campus lab dedicated to the technology. In the Biomechatronics and Assistive Technology Lab, better known as the BioAstLab, undergraduate and graduate students led by Kaplanoglu are tackling smart prosthetics and orthotic systems—braces, alignment, support— an electromyography (EMG)-controlled balance board and other biomechatronics projects designed to assist the human body.

Although it’s housed in the Department of Engineering Management and Technology, BioAstLab is collaborative in nature, working with biomedical and medical departments at UTC, as well as other higher education institutions.

“Our lab seeks to advance the science of smart prosthesis/orthosis and rehabilitation robotics research to address health and lifestyle issues affecting individuals with physical disabilities and develop the next generation of mechatronics engineers,” Kaplanoglu explained.

For Kaplanoglu, biomechatronics is personal. About 10 years ago, a veteran friend lost his hand, and it was replaced with a prosthetic. But the hand’s functions were limited. It could open and close, providing the ability to grip items between thumb and fingers. That was about it.“He deserved better,” Kaplanoglu said. “I told myself that I need to design more. A smarter one.”

At the time, “smart prosthetics,” as he calls them, had some serious hurdles to overcome. Most were too heavy, too noisy or their batteries did not last long enough for practical use.“You can design good, multifunctional hands, but they’re going to be heavy, and people cannot wear them,” Kaplanoglu explained. “And if your battery dies in the middle of the day, that’s not good. So, you have to make sure that your design is lightweight, noiseless and has a good battery management system.”

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Sarah ’14, ’16 earned an MA in English rhetoric and composition at UTC where she now works as staff writer; she enjoys hiking with her husband and two boys and spending time with her backyard menagerie of goats, chickens and ducks.

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