UMaine Biomechanical Research Helps Develop Injury-Reduction Products

Contact: Vincent Caccese, (207) 581-2131

ORONO — Engineering researchers at the University of Maine are receiving more than $533,000 in grant funding to create a new biomechanical laboratory to help test and evaluate injury-reduction, repair and rehabilitation equipment under development by several small Maine companies.

The lab will employ a family of state-of-the-art crash test dummies on which to perform impact and vibration tests to determine, for example, which new protective materials work best in reducing head trauma — from simple falls to sophisticated composites to protect soldiers from head wound complications due to helicopter vibration during air evacuation. The design, development and commercialization of an assistive robotic exoskeletal rowing machine for people with disabilities or in rehabilitation is another objective planned as part of multiple product-development partnerships between the university and private sector companies.

With grant funding from the Maine Technology Asset Fund through the Maine Technology Institute, UMaine will create a Biomechanics Laboratory for Injury Reduction and Rehabilitation within the College of Engineering’s Mechanical Engineering Department in the next year. The AMC Building on campus will undergo minor renovations to accommodate the new lab.

The collaborative research is a part of the university’s commitment to help small companies with good ideas but limited access to testing facilities develop products and verify that they are ready for commercialization, says principal investigator Vincent Caccese, a professor of mechanical engineering and expert in structural mechanics. The new biomechanics lab will expand the university’s capacity to conduct such testing into the future.

New testing equipment will include the acquisition of crash test dummies to be used for impact-testing of neuro-protective head gear that looks like a fashionable cap or headband, but actually serves as a lightweight helmet that people will, in fact, be willing to wear.  In addition, a state-of-the-art robotic manipulator will be purchased that allows fast development of robotic-based exercise equipment.

In vibration-mitigation research, researchers also will be using the dummies on the university’s vibrating “shaking table” to test composite padding and stabilization materials designed to protect people with head wounds — caused on the battlefield, on highways or elsewhere — from further injury during evacuation.

Another area of interest is in vibration reduction for infants during med-vac transport, a project idea that originated in discussions with LifeFlight of Maine. Much of the biomechanical research planned at UMaine has not been done before, says Caccese.

University of Maine co-researchers also working under the MTAF grant include Ashish Deshpande and Mohsen Shahinpoor of the mechanical engineering faculty; Elizabeth Depoy and Stephen Gilson of the Center for Community Inclusion and Disability Studies; and Richard Eason of the electrical and computer engineering faculty.

Private partners include Alba-Technic, LLC of Arundel, a company that has developed fashionable lightweight protective head gear; Wiscasset-based Rynel Inc., a manufacturer of specialty hydrophilic polyurethane foams; LifeFlight of Maine, a Bangor-based medical helicopter service; and Astos Innovations, a Newberg nonprofit that works to improve accessibility resources.

The collaboration with Alba-Technic involves support from the Department of Veterans’ Affairs research center in Florida and the Division of Geriatric Medicine at UCLA.

Assisting Alba-Technic with the head gear testing is “going to help people by developing products to prevent or lessen injuries, which is also good for our economy and will help create jobs in the meantime where we can make these products in Maine and sell them elsewhere,” Caccese says. A market study has estimated the sales potential of the neuro-protective head gear at more than $10 million with a mature market in five years.

“We’re trying to create a laboratory where we can transfer technology in both directions,” says Caccese. “The Alba-Technic project is one really good example where a small business in Maine had a great idea on how to help improve injury prevention using some advanced materials.”

That’s one instance of UMaine helping private partners. “An example of it going in another direction is we have product ideas here and we have advanced technology here that we would like to transfer outward, as well,” Caccese says.

He cites an unmet need in the fitness industry to make exercise equipment accessible to people with disabilities, limited movement or those recovering from injury. Robotics expert Deshpande and Eason, an expert in motors and controls, in conjunction with Gilson and Depoy, have designed an assistive robotic rowing machine that can be adjusted to enable people with physical limitations to reduce, adjust or modify resistance.

“Our hope is to have laboratory where we can get ideas out into commercialization, or when someone has ideas they can come to us for some testing,” he says. “It’s a chance to use some of the knowledge and some of the concepts that we teach to develop products that are going to help people. That’s the most exciting part. If we help save one person from a severe injury then it’s worth it.”