Building portable actuators and motors to solve medical problems

Biomedical engineer Andrew Taberner likes to “take risks, try crazy things, yet design and build systems and devices that are actually useful”.

For the past few years, he and Professor Peter Xu have co-led the MedTech CoRE’s Actuation and Controls technology platform, developing a range of “hard” (e.g. electromagnetic) and “soft” (hydraulic, pneumatic, elastomer-based) motors and their controllers. These are being used in projects ranging from drug delivery and blood extraction devices, to exoskeleton assist devices, stomach/swallowing simulators, and actuated prostheses.

Andrew began his connection with the University of Auckland in 1999, as part of the Bioengineering Research group in Engineering Science and Physiology. In 2002, he went to Boston for a job at MIT , returning to the Auckland Bioengineering Institute (ABI) 2008. He’s now an Associate Professor, teaching and researching bioinstrumentation for the Department of Engineering’s Science Biomedical Engineering degree specialisation and ABI respectively.

In his MedTech CoRE role, Andrew leads the development of motors and actuators, applying these in robotic devices to address medical problems. He also leads the development of instruments used for studying the heart and its tissues, and works on other technologies used in measuring the properties of soft tissues such as skin, muscle and fat.

His current focus is jet injection devices built in part on the CoRE’s investment in the Actuation and Control tech platform. “As part of one of New Zealand's National Science Challenges, we’re developing needle-free drug delivery systems and lancet-free blood extraction systems that we hope will make life simpler for diabetic patients.

“We’re also working on other applications such as needle-free administration of dental anaesthetic, skin anaesthetic, sedatives, and even nicotine for smoking cessation therapy. Our exoskeleton robotic devices, with development led by Bryan Ruddy at ABI, are being used to develop better therapies for stroke patients.”

For Andrew, there are three main challenges – funding, retention and going small. “Funding is always a challenge and we have to find ways to retain high-quality NZ-educated students.”

When it comes to devices, the challenges centre on reducing their size, mass and cost. “We’re working hard to design yet more powerful and efficient electric motors. The power systems – such as controllers, batteries and pressure sources – needed for many of these motors also need to be downsized and more efficient so they can become more portable, as required for many applications. Soft actuators are very dextrous, and require new forms of displacement and position measurement and this is an area where we’ve been putting in a lot of work recently.”

Looking forward, Andrew says they have some strong existing connections with companies who are using their technologies, such as jet injection. “We’re always interested in talking with other companies who can use our high-power and high-efficiency linear electric motors, or soft pliable actuators and length sensors.”

CoREs were also given a role in fostering new researchers, something Andrew is committed to.

“I want to continue to empower young people to achieve their potential by providing excellent education and training in bioinstrumentation, and medical/scientific device development. I want to continue to foster an environment in which graduate students and early career researchers have the tools, freedom, facilities and inspiration to create their own solutions to important problems. I hope also to make a difference to the quality and efficiency of health-care provision in New Zealand and the world through the new technologies that we work on.”

By Prue Scott

A/Prof Andrew Taberner showing his work