Writer: Mark Cramer
Ou Ma, a professor in the New Mexico State University College of Engineering’s mechanical and aerospace engineering department, has been awarded a four-year, $1.68 million grant from the National Science Foundation to develop new reduced-gravity simulation technology for astronaut training and biomechanics research. The grant money also will go towards developing a new simulation facility to house the research.
Ma is leading a multidisciplinary team of investigators in efforts to create and test an innovative design of an adaptive, passive reduced-gravity simulator. His partners include Robert Paz, an associate professor in the Klipsch School of Electrical and Computer Engineering; Son Tran, associate professor of computer science; and Ed Pines, professor of industrial engineering. Ma also has a team of student researchers working on the project.
The research holds a dual purpose. The simulator design, based on robotics and passive gravity compensation technologies, could offload any amount of a person’s body weight. By studying test subjects using the simulator, the team could gain a greater understanding of the dynamics of the human body, leading to better insight into the modeling and simulation of physical human bodies, as well as the practice of neuro-rehabilitation of patients with walking disabilities. From an aerospace perspective, it could enhance manned space exploration by providing a reliable, easy-access and low-cost new astronaut training technology.
Ma had been developing the concept of the simulator for some time, supported by seed money from the NASA Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR), awarded to him by the New Mexico Space Grant Consortium, as well as by a NASA Graduate Student Research Fellowship grant awarded to graduate student Jesse McAvoy, who is aiding Ma in the research. The preliminary development of the well-developed concept led to the NSF’s grant, which will allow Ma’s team to design a full-scale prototype of the simulation system and study the new technology with real human subjects.
Ma’s field of research includes dynamics and controls for robotics applications. He spent more than 10 years working in the area of space robotics in the aerospace industry prior to coming to NMSU in 2002. He also is working on several other robotics and UAV-related research projects sponsored by the NSF, NASA, the Army Research Office and NMSU’s Physical Science Laboratory.
In this project, Paz is using his expertise in electrical and control engineering to develop an auto-adaptation capability for the simulator, which will allow it to automatically adapt to different individuals. Tran’s field covers software and human body dynamics database development, and Pines will provide expertise and experience in the areas of ergonomics and human factors.
The grant provides the necessary funds to allow Ma to hire a full-time research engineer, as well as support two graduate students and at least two undergraduate students per year to work on the project. Additionally, a new laboratory equipped with state-of-the-art instrumentation for biomechanics and human performance research will be constructed in Jett Hall on the NMSU campus. This unique lab will help Ma and his team to propose and conduct several cross-disciplinary research topics. It also will serve as a way to provide students with additional hands-on learning experience in the biomechanics and aerospace sciences.