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Robotic ‘SuperLimbs’ could help moonwalkers recover from falls



Robotic ‘SuperLimbs’ could help moonwalkers recover from falls

Need a moment of levity? Try watching videos of astronauts falling on the moon. NASA’s outtakes of Apollo astronauts tripping and stumbling as they bounce in slow motion are delightfully relatable.

For MIT engineers, the lunar bloopers also highlight an opportunity to innovate.

“Astronauts are physically very capable, but they can struggle on the moon, where gravity is one-sixth that of Earth’s but their inertia is still the same. Furthermore, wearing a spacesuit is a significant burden and can constrict their movements,” says Harry Asada, professor of mechanical engineering at MIT. “We want to provide a safe way for astronauts to get back on their feet if they fall.”

Asada and his colleagues are designing a pair of wearable robotic limbs that can physically support an astronaut and lift them back on their feet after a fall. The system, which the researchers have dubbed Supernumerary Robotic Limbs or “SuperLimbs” is designed to extend from a backpack, which would also carry the astronaut’s life support system, along with the controller and motors to power the limbs.

The researchers have built a physical prototype, as well as a control system to direct the limbs, based on feedback from the astronaut using it. The team tested a preliminary version on healthy subjects who also volunteered to wear a constrictive garment similar to an astronaut’s spacesuit. When the volunteers attempted to get up from a sitting or lying position, they did so with less effort when assisted by SuperLimbs, compared to when they had to recover on their own.

The MIT team envisions that SuperLimbs can physically assist astronauts after a fall and, in the process, help them conserve their energy for other essential tasks. The design could prove especially useful in the coming years, with the launch of NASA’s Artemis mission, which plans to send astronauts back to the moon for the first time in over 50 years. Unlike the largely exploratory mission of Apollo, Artemis astronauts will endeavor to build the first permanent moon base — a physically demanding task that will require multiple extended extravehicular activities (EVAs).

“During the Apollo era, when astronauts would fall, 80 percent of the time it was when they were doing excavation or some sort of job with a tool,” says team member and MIT doctoral student Erik Ballesteros. “The Artemis missions will really focus on construction and excavation, so the risk of falling is much higher. We think that SuperLimbs can help them recover so they can be more productive, and extend their EVAs.”

Asada, Ballesteros, and their colleagues will present their design and study this week at the IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation (ICRA). Their co-authors include MIT postdoc Sang-Yoep Lee and Kalind Carpenter of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Taking a stand

The team’s design is the latest application of SuperLimbs, which Asada first developed about a decade ago and has since adapted for a range of applications, including assisting workers in aircraft manufacturing, construction, and ship building.

Most recently, Asada and Ballesteros wondered whether SuperLimbs might assist astronauts, particularly as NASA plans to send astronauts back to the surface of the moon.

“In communications with NASA, we learned that this issue of falling on the moon is a serious risk,” Asada says. “We realized that we could make some modifications to our design to help astronauts recover from falls and carry on with their work.”

The team first took a step back, to study the ways in which humans naturally recover from a fall. In their new study, they asked several healthy volunteers to attempt to stand upright after lying on their side, front, and back.

The researchers then looked at how the volunteers’ attempts to stand changed when their movements were constricted, similar to the way astronauts’ movements are limited by the bulk of their spacesuits. The team built a suit to mimic the stiffness of traditional spacesuits, and had volunteers don the suit before again attempting to stand up from various fallen positions. The volunteers’ sequence of movements was similar, though required much more effort compared to their unencumbered attempts.

The team mapped the movements of each volunteer as they stood up, and found that they each carried out a common sequence of motions, moving from one pose, or “waypoint,” to the next, in a predictable order.

“Those ergonomic experiments helped us to model in a straightforward way, how a human stands up,” Ballesteros says. “We could postulate that about 80 percent of humans stand up in a similar way. Then we designed a controller around that trajectory.”

Helping hand

The team developed software to generate a trajectory for a robot, following a sequence that would help support a human and lift them back on their feet. They applied the controller to a heavy, fixed robotic arm, which they attached to a large backpack. The researchers then attached the backpack to the bulky suit and helped volunteers back into the suit. They asked the volunteers to again lie on their back, front, or side, and then had them attempt to stand as the robot sensed the person’s movements and adapted to help them to their feet.

Overall, the volunteers were able to stand stably with much less effort when assisted by the robot, compared to when they tried to stand alone while wearing the bulky suit.

“It feels kind of like an extra force moving with you,” says Ballesteros, who also tried out the suit and arm assist. “Imagine wearing a backpack and someone grabs the top and sort of pulls you up. Over time, it becomes sort of natural.”

The experiments confirmed that the control system can successfully direct a robot to help a person stand back up after a fall. The researchers plan to pair the control system with their latest version of SuperLimbs, which comprises two multijointed robotic arms that can extend out from a backpack. The backpack would also contain the robot’s battery and motors, along with an astronaut’s ventilation system.

“We designed these robotic arms based on an AI search and design optimization, to look for designs of classic robot manipulators with certain engineering constraints,” Ballesteros says. “We filtered through many designs and looked for the design that consumes the least amount of energy to lift a person up. This version of SuperLimbs is the product of that process.”

Over the summer, Ballesteros will build out the full SuperLimbs system at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, where he plans to streamline the design and minimize the weight of its parts and motors using advanced, lightweight materials. Then, he hopes to pair the limbs with astronaut suits, and test them in low-gravity simulators, with the goal of someday assisting astronauts on future missions to the moon and Mars.

“Wearing a spacesuit can be a physical burden,” Asada notes. “Robotic systems can help ease that burden, and help astronauts be more productive during their missions.”

This research was supported, in part, by NASA.

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Orchids support seedlings through ‘parental nurture’ via shared underground fungal networks




Orchids support seedlings through ‘parental nurture’ via shared underground fungal networks

The Common Spotted Orchid (Dactylorhiza fuchsii) is found all over the UK. These orchids produce tiny seeds that can be carried anywhere by the wind, yet they often appear in clumps with small seedlings growing near mature plants. This phenomenon has puzzled ecologists since Darwin’s time, with the exact reason remaining a mystery.

A new study, led by researchers from the University of Sheffield in collaboration with The University of Manchester, provides the first evidence that early stage orchid seedlings germinate and thrive near to adult plants due to a kind of parental nurture using underground fungal networks.

Scientists investigated the idea that fungal networks, known as mycorrhizal networks, act as a direct pathway for established orchid plants to share recently produced sugars with developing seedlings.

Professor Katie Field, co-author of the study and Professor of Plant-Soil Processes at the University of Sheffield’s School of Biosciences, said: “Our results support the idea that some orchids engage in a form of ‘parental nurture’ with their seedlings. By supplying early stage seedlings with essential nutrients via shared fungal connections, the parent orchids give the seedlings an advantage over neighbouring plants that are competing for the same resources.

“This finding is exciting because why these orchids are often found in clumps, despite their seeds being wind dispersed, has been a puzzle for hundreds of years.”

The study focused on the Common Spotted Orchid and its fungal partner, Ceratobasidium cornigerum. Researchers created a system where mature, green orchids were connected to developing, chlorophyll-free seedlings through a fungal network grown on agar.

The mature plants were then exposed to a special form of carbon dioxide that could be tracked within the system.

Here’s how it worked:

  • Green orchid plants were connected to developing seedlings through the fungal network.
  • The green plants were then exposed to a special form of carbon dioxide that could be tracked within the system.
  • After a period of time, the researchers analysed both the seedlings and the fungal network to see where the labelled carbon ended up.

The results were clear, the seedlings were accumulating the labelled carbon, indicating they were being supported by the adult plants. By tracking the movement of carbon, the study showed that the mature orchids were indeed sharing their recently produced sugars with the seedlings through the fungal network.

Sir David Read, Emeritus Professor of Plant Sciences from the University of Sheffield and lead author of the study, said: “Whereas the seeds of most plants, for example legumes (peas, beans) and grasses (rice, corn, wheat) are fully provisioned with food reserves by their parent plants, the so-called dust seeds of orchids receive insufficient reserves from the parents to develop on their own.

“They are instead produced in their millions by each individual parent orchid plant from which they are dispersed, by wind, to the surrounding environment. Even Charles Darwin was puzzled by this strategy, suggesting that while it should enable the seeds of an individual orchid plant to be so widely distributed that within a few years it could colonise the whole world. He observed that their failure to do so ‘could not be understood at this time’.

“What is now revealed is that the belowground development of these essentially reserve-free seeds can be supported by photosynthetically produced sugars that are transported to them from mature plants growing above ground through a shared mycelium of symbiotic fungi.”

Results of the study, published in New Phytologist, show the amount of carbon transferred seemed to depend on the environment. When the fungus had access to a richer food source (oatmeal agar), less carbon was transferred to the seedling. This suggests that the strength of the demand from the seedlings may influence the flow of nutrients through the network.

This research has important implications for understanding orchid ecology and conservation efforts. By recognising the importance of fungal connections, scientists can develop better strategies for protecting these unique and often threatened plants.

Next steps are to research this theory in the natural habitat that the orchids are found in and to look at whether this applies to other species.

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Bird flu: Diverse range of vaccines platforms ‘crucial’ for enhancing human pandemic preparedness




Bird flu: Diverse range of vaccines platforms ‘crucial’ for enhancing human pandemic preparedness

Vaccination remains the most effective strategy for avian influenza prevention and control in humans, despite varying vaccine efficacy across strains.

That’s according to the authors of a new review which delves into existing research into bird flu vaccines for humans.

Published in the peer-reviewed journal Human Vaccines & Immunotherapeutics, the results of the paper are particularly timely following news last week (Wednesday 22nd May) that the bird flu strain H5N1 had once again, for a second time, jumped from cattle in America to a human — prompting fears of subsequent human-to-human infection, with possible critical consequences.

Instances of the avian influenza were first recognized in US cattle in March. Since then, this strain has mainly spread from cow-to-cow and scientists have discovered very high levels of virus in raw milk (pasteurized milk is safe, having shown viral RNA but not infectious virus). To-date two people, however, are known to have contracted the bird flu virus. Both patients — US farmers — only reported eye symptoms and with treatment they made a full recovery.

Following tests on the first human instance, it was seen that the strain had mutated to be better adapted to mammalian cells, but as long as that human didn’t pass it onto another person it likely stopped the spread at that point. With the second case, the CDC has released a statement to say it has been monitoring influenza surveillance systems intently, especially in impacted states. “There has been no sign of unusual influenza activity in people, including in syndromic surveillance,” they report.

The concern now, though, is that if H5N1 continues to be given the environment in which to mutate (such as in close quarter cattle farms) — and this continues long enough — it has the potential to find a combination that will easily spread to humans.

The results of this new research, carried out by a team at the University of Georgia, USA, suggests vaccines still remain our “primary defense” against potential spread of avian influenzas such as the H5N1 and others assessed.

“The H5N1, H7N9, and H9N2 subtypes of avian influenza virus pose a dual threat, not only causing significant economic losses to the global poultry industry but also presenting a pressing public health concern due to documented spillover events and human cases,” explains lead author Flavio Cargnin Faccin, who alongside his mentor Dr. Daniel Perez of the University of Georgia, USA, analyzed the current landscape of research into human vaccines for these bird flus.

“This deep delve into the landscape of avian influenza vaccines for humans shows vaccination remains the primary defense against the spread of these viruses.”

The team examined studies of vaccines tested in mice, ferrets, non-human primates, and clinical trials of bird flu vaccines in humans, and assessed both established platforms and promising new directions.

The review carried out suggests inactivated vaccines are a safe and affordable option that primarily activate humoral immunity — the part of our immune system that produces antibodies.

Live attenuated influenza vaccines (LAIVs) are known to induce a wider immune response than inactivated vaccines, activating not only antibody production but also mucosal and cellular defenses. In this review, the authors suggest this broader response may offer greater protection, though, the authors suggest further research is needed to fully understand and harness its potential benefits for both human and agricultural applications.

The review also examined alternatives, such as virus-like particle (VLP) vaccines and messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccines, that have emerged more recently. Although VLP vaccines for bird flu have limited clinical trial data in humans, results from studies in mice and ferrets showed promise, the authors found. mRNA vaccines against H5N1 and H7N9 bird flu subtypes also generated a rapid and strong immune response in mice and ferrets, and, while data in humans is scarce, results from a phase 1 study of an H7N9 mRNA vaccine in healthy humans were “encouraging.”

Overall, the team suggests “exploring and employing a diverse range of vaccine platforms,” will be “crucial for enhancing pandemic preparedness and mitigating the threat of avian influenza viruses.”

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When should you neuter or spay your dog?




When should you neuter or spay your dog?

Researchers at the University of California, Davis, have updated their guidelines on when to neuter 40 popular dog varieties by breed and sex. Their recent paper in Frontiers in Veterinary Science adds five breeds to a line of research that began in 2013 with a study that suggested that early neutering of golden retrievers puts them at increased risk of joint diseases and certain cancers.

That initial study set off a flurry of debate about the best age to neuter other popular breeds. Professors Lynette and Benjamin Hart of the School of Veterinary Medicine, the study’s lead authors, set out to add more breed studies by examining more than a decade of data from thousands of dogs treated at the UC Davis veterinary hospital. Their goal was to provide owners with more information to make the best decision for their animals.

They specifically looked at the correlation between neutering or spaying a dog before 1 year of age and a dog’s risk of developing certain cancers. These include cancers of the lymph nodes, bones, blood vessels or mast cell tumors for some breeds; and joint disorders such as hip or elbow dysplasia, or cranial cruciate ligament tears. Joint disorders and cancers are of particular interest because neutering removes male and female sex hormones that play key roles in important body processes such as closure of bone growth plates.

For the most recent study, they focused on German short/wirehaired pointer, mastiff, Newfoundland, Rhodesian ridgeback and Siberian husky. Data was collected from the UC Davis veterinary hospital’s records that included more than 200 cases for each of these five breeds weighing more than 20 kg (or 44 pounds), spanning January 2000 through December 2020.

The Harts said their updated guidelines emphasize the importance of personalized decisions regarding the neutering of dogs, considering the dog’s breed, sex and context. A table representing guidelines reflecting the research findings for all 40 breeds that have been studied, including the five new breeds, can be found here.

Health risks different among breeds

“It’s always complicated to consider an alternate paradigm,” said Professor Lynette Hart. “This is a shift from a long-standing model of early spay/neuter practices in the U.S. and much of Europe to neuter by 6 months of age, but important to consider as we see the connections between gonadal hormone withdrawal from early spay/neuter and potential health concerns.”

The study found major differences among these breeds for developing joint disorders and cancers when neutered early. Male and female pointer breeds had elevated joint disorders and increased cancers; male mastiff breeds had increased cranial cruciate ligament tears and lymphoma; female Newfoundland breeds had heightened risks for joint disorders; female Ridgeback breeds had heightened risks for mast cell tumors with very early neutering; and Siberian huskies showed no significant effects on joint disorders or cancers.

“We’re invested in making contributions to people’s relationship with their animals,” said Benjamin Hart, distinguished professor emeritus. “This guidance provides information and options for veterinarians to give pet owners, who should have the final decision-making role for the health and well-being of their animal.”

Their combined research studies will soon be available with others in the open access journal, Frontiers of Veterinary Science, as a free e-book, Effective Options Regarding Spay or Neuter of Dogs.

Other researchers on this UC Davis study include: Abigail Thigpen, Maya Lee, Miya Babchuk, Jenna Lee, Megan Ho, Sara Clarkson and Juliann Chou with the School of Veterinary Medicine; and Neil Willits with the Department of Statistics.

The research received a small amount of funding from the Center for Companion Animal Health, but was primarily conducted by the above authors as volunteers.

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