Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Students' innovations lend a hand to physically challenged

A woman in her mid-forties down with a neuromuscular disease called ALS is able to communicate with others, thanks to a device developed by students in Lowell, Massachussets. The device, developed by the graduate engineering students at the University of Massachusetts, US, is hooked to the woman with a programme to get answers of "yes" or "no". This helps her husband or nurse to know her preferences and she is able to come out of a virtually hopeless situation.

Similarly, students have specially designed a computer to help a physically challenged person and trained him, thus providing access to a world hitherto denied to him. This was possible due to some innovative thinking and work by the engineering students, said Prof. Alan Rux who has been running a programme on Assistive Technologies for the disabled for the past 25 years.

With support from giants such as Raytheon, 3M, and Analog Devices, the University has an Incubation Centre called the M2D2 (Massachusssets, Medical, Device Development), with sufficient funds to support up to 50 innovative projects from graduate engineering students annually. A host of devices that help the disabled have come out over the years, Prof. Rux told Business Line.

The innovative work on the ALS patient led to the development of a device that allows a near completely paralysed patient to communicate. Interestingly, the device is soon to be available under $ 300. ALS or Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (Lou Gehrig's disease) is a rapidly progressive and fatal neuromuscular disease that is characterised by degeneration of a select group of nerve cells and pathways (motor neurons) in the brain and spinal cord.

Prof. Rux said: “I had 200 engineering students. So we went to the disabled community and asked them their needs. Came back and started to make custom-made devices. Our engineering students interface with the disabled, doctors and nurses. Over the past 20 years more than a thousand projects have been undertaken at the University”.

The US University is collaborating with the B V Raju Institute of Technology (BVRIT), near Hyderabad, in some projects and providing technical support. Prof. Rux's sees immense scope for Indian-US engineering students working together to develop low-cost solutions to the needs of the disabled, whose number is large, especially in India.

In an interesting, ongoing project students from the BVRIT and the UMASS are working together harnessing the power of the new media — email, facebook, skype etc. It will be possible not just to share technology, but also take devices from India and showcase them in the US and vice-versa, Prof. Rux explained.

K.V. Raju, Chairman of the Society that runs BVRIT said they too have an Assistive Technologies Lab with about 500 engineering students working on various projects. A stick for the blind, a voice-controlled wheel chair for the handicapped have been developed. It has a few American students working jointly.

Prof. Rux said a non-resident Indian Venture capitalist, Guru Deshpande, who founded Sycamore, is an active supporter of the University's projects. Similarly, alumni have also provide up to $400,000 donation for the entrepreneurship initiatives, he said.

Source: The Hindu Business Line, August 3, 2011
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