Wearable Robotics, Biomechanics, Mechanism Design, Mechatronics
I got started in robotics when the teaching assistant for one of my classes told me about this lab his friend worked in where they studied how animals moved, and then built robots that could imitate them. I thought that sounded really interesting and so worked in that lab for the rest of my time in grad school! After my Ph.D., I decided I wanted to focus on devices that helped people, so before starting at Virginia Tech, I did postdocs making humanoid robotic arms and exosuits to assist walking. I have a wide range of interests because I have a background in both mechanical engineering and electrical engineering.
I'm really interested in creating new mechanisms, both for exoskeletons and robots. I like robotics and mechatronics using motors and sensors to make things move and controlling them so they move in the way you want. I'm also very interested in machine learning to understand how people are moving and how they plan on moving in the future.
My research centers on building human-assistance devices and on understanding how to make them work most effectively with the body. Practically, this means building new exoskeletons or robots, doing biomechanics experiments, and making new sensor systems to understand how a person is moving. My lab's work is used to help healthy people avoid injuries, and help people who need rehabilitation get better.
I first discovered a passion for this work ...
I have always liked making things. When I was young, I would make things in my garage for fun out of wood or old things we were recycling. Only in graduate school did I realize that inventing and making new things could be part of a long-term career!
My work impacts society ...
All of my lab's work is focused on helping people. But beyond that, I've always been interested in making things that will be used in the real world. To try to accomplish that, I always think about how to make exoskeletons and robots very inexpensively, since cost is a major driver in what will actually be used by people.
I see the future in my field ...
I believe that machine learning will become the dominant method of control for exoskeletons and robots that interact with humans, and relatively soon. A major problem for exoskeletons and standalone robots is understanding what the human is trying to do. Machine learning is becoming exponentially better with Moore's Law, and is well-suited for problems like this.
In my free time ...
When I'm not doing professor stuff, I like playing with my kids, playing board games with my wife, and going for hikes in nature.
Best part of working at Virginia Tech ...
I think the best thing about Virginia Tech is how friendly and genuinely supportive everyone is. Everyone I've met really wants to help each other succeed, which is pretty unusual.
Something that excites me in my field ...
Exoskeletons are becoming increasingly prevalent in the real world. I believe that in as few as five to ten years, most people will know someone who uses an exoskeleton at work or at home. This is really exciting because we are on the cusp of a transformation in how people get things done.
Last article I read ...
"Effects of a passive back exoskeleton on the mechanical loading of the low-back during symmetric lifting," by Axel S. Koopman, Idsart Kingma, Michiel P. de Looze, Jaap H. van Dieën, Journal of Biomechanics 102 (2020) 109486
Words of encouragement to an aspiring inventor ...
I think the best way to be able to do what you want to for your job (in general, not just being an inventor) is to get really really good at it. Then, other people will recognize that you're really good at it and hire you to do that. So if you want to be an inventor, you should try to make new things as much as you are able! When I was younger, my mom would give me anything that broke in the house, and I would take it apart. This way, I learned a lot about how things worked and how they were made. I also made random gadgets just because it was fun. Then when I was older, opportunities came up that needed a new solution and I was able to draw on my previous experience to figure them out. The other important thing to know about inventions is that they always take many iterations. All the projects I've been involved in where we made something new required at least five to ten prototypes. If you're making a new thing, by definition you won't know how to make it work at first, because it's new! So don't be discouraged if your first version doesn't work, because your last version will if you keep at it long enough.
Alan Asbeck | Assistant Professor
Mechanical Engineering, Virginia Tech
College of Engineering - Faculty Bio Page