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The launch of the LAIR lab

Katya Soltan '19 is building what she calls a "swarm of underwater robots."

They're about five inches long and contain magnets inside, each surrounded by a coil. As an alternating electric current flows through the coils, the magnets move back and forth, producing a wave-like motion.

Put them in water and they swim like fish. Since they're cheap to make, just $50 for the current prototype, Soltan imagines scientists attaching cameras to them and deploying a swarm to photograph coral reefs or investigate the ocean floor. "We'll just be able to plop a huge number of them in the water and off they'll go," she says.

The robot fish are one of the many projects being pursued by assistant professor of mechanical engineering Jeff Dusek and his students. Dusek's research falls into two major areas — underwater robotics and assistive/adaptive technology.

Those are admittedly pretty disparate interests, but ones which Dusek manages to shift between seamlessly in his lab, LAIR, or the Laboratory for Adaptation, Inclusion and Robotics.

Both robots and accessibility "offer these great engineering challenges that I really wanted to take on," Dusek says. "Olin allows me to do both, so that's great." 

Dusek grew up outside Cleveland, sailing on Lake Erie. He always thought he'd grow up to design sailboats for the America's Cup. He chose an academic career instead but combined it with his love of the water. As an undergraduate at Florida Atlantic University and then as a Ph.D. student at MIT, he specialized in ocean engineering. 

Dusek's interest in accessibility also started in childhood. His grandmother had Huntington's disease and used a wheelchair. She also needed a device that enabled her to type words and then spoke them for her. "I grew up around assistive devices," he says. 

His mother and aunt also have Huntington's, which is genetic. Over the years, he's volunteered as a guide runner for visually-impaired athletes and gotten to know many people in the blind community.

He says he chose to put the word inclusion in the name of his lab to indicate, "We're going to work with community members with all sorts of abilities."

Dusek gives his students wide latitude to pursue their interests and a large degree of autonomy. "He was there to guide us when we needed help or were stuck on a problem," says Alison Palmer '21, "but he gave us a lot of freedom to decide how we were going to go about our project."

Palmer worked with Dusek on developing a better way for people in motorized wheelchairs to store and carry their possessions. Typically, people with disabilities put items in bags on the back of the chair. These can be hard to reach or too heavy to pick up.

If the bags are instead placed on the side at arm's length, the wheelchair takes on extra width and may have difficulty getting through doors or other tight spaces.

"We really wanted to look into this problem and design solutions," Dusek says. "We wanted to do something that increased accessibility, autonomy, and privacy."

Before starting, Palmer and two other students, Sabrina Tamames and Adrian Botran '21, interviewed 15 individuals who either used motorized wheelchairs or worked with people who used them. One clear message from all the interviewees: they wanted easy and quick access to their phones. 

"Cell phones were their main source of emergency services if they needed them," Palmer says. "If their chair's battery ran out, they had to be able to access their phones to call someone for help."

To make sure they always kept their end users in mind, the students worked closely on the project with five co-designers. Four used motorized wheelchairs and the fifth had experience designing assistive technology. They hung giant strips of parchment paper on the walls with pictures of the end users and attached sticky notes containing their feedback.

"It was so nice to have that visual reminder," says Palmer. "We were always thinking of them while we were working. 

At the end of the summer, Palmer presented a device to officials from Toyota, which funded the project. The project's five co-designers were also there.

"At the end of it, one of our co-designer's face lit up. He said, 'I can't wait to use this!'" Palmer recalls. "That was the most satisfying thing. It made it clear that this would be useful to the people who really need it."

Palmer says the larger lesson she learned from the experience was, "We haven't designed a world for people with disabilities. We need to set up our environment to accommodate everyone."

Dusek is also working on another project involving assistive technology that would add sensors and a GPS system to motorized wheelchairs to safely increase performance and make them more responsive to users’ needs.  

Though he originally drew inspiration from the autonomous features in self-driving cars, Dusek found that many power chair users didn't want a fully autonomous solution. “They like the freedom and independence of driving their own chair," he says.

Still, the power chair users he interviewed saw value in a chair that could utilize smart technology to provide increased performance or maintain independence and autonomy for users. Also very useful would be a chair that could detect cracked pavement or uneven cobblestones on a road and take precautionary safety measures. This way the person in the chair wouldn't have to slow down as much to deal with dangerous conditions.

In the long term, Dusek says he wants his lab to be known as "a place where people with all types of ability can turn to for assistance with technical challenges. If they’re running into a problem or not quite sure what to do, they'll know my students and I are passionate about thinking creatively and coming up with solutions to real world problems that really make a difference."