Robotics and the reality of science fiction

Melbourne School of Engineering Senior Lecturer and Robotics Engineer, Denny Oetomo, sees his academic research and teaching as more than a job. “It’s part of my identity,” Denny explained when we caught up with him recently, “my research projects become a personal pursuit.”

His latest work has focused on exploring the use of robotics to improve the recovery of upper limb use following nervous system injuries such as strokes. Patients regaining use of their arms and hands is one of the greatest challenges faced by rehabilitation professionals and at the Royal Melbourne Hospital’s ‘Hand Hub,’ Denny’s exoskeleton robot (see pictured) is being successfully used by patients who have little to no voluntary arm movement.

According to Denny, “robotics is going through a renaissance.” Bringing engineering experts together with rehabilitation staff from the Royal Melbourne Hospital has made greater progress in rehabilitation patients possible, highlighting the unprecedented value that can be created by integrating disciplines.

By studying the data collected through the recovery progress, Denny will work to refine the robot’s algorithms for more effective treatment. He is acutely aware of the need to offer support past a patient’s hospital stay, “Beyond hospital bound resources such as these exoskeleton robots, it is very important that we improve the treatment technology for patients to use in their daily activities, after they are discharged”.

While driven by his innovative research, Denny remains equally passionate about his teaching, particularly about giving his students hands on experiences that will equip them for life after their studies. “When students are building something from scratch they get a much better understanding of how things work, and they ask much better questions,” he explains.

In 2014, Denny and his team were recognised with a Norman Curry Award for Innovation and Excellence in Education Programs for their work on the Formula SAE Australasia competition which sees final year engineering students materialise their skills by building an open- wheel, formula styled race car. Denny took this program from one that was run purely for educational purposes to a program that equips students with the skills necessary to apply their studies to the workplace. His teams are professionally run, self-regulated and frequently place in the top three nationally.

As well as instilling a culture of self-management, Denny began involving a wider set of students in the team. Rather than participating for a single year, students are now involved across a number of years, gaining greater insight across the full spectrum of the program, from car mechanics through to managing industry sponsorship.

Denny remains grateful that a careers advisor pointed him in the direction of engineering as its wide application leads to innovation and the subsequent improvement of so many aspects of modern life, for example, the use of his exoskeleton robot by rehabilitation professionals. Denny’s other innovative research includes his collaborative work with St Vincent Hospital on neuro prosthetics (brain controlled prosthetics for amputees) and new methods of performing minimally invasive robotic surgery.

Denny is excited that engineering often turns science fiction into reality and jokes that “Hollywood sci- fi’s are often a spoiler for our work.”

When asked what impact his research is having on society, Denny modestly answered, “to be determined.” But given his robot is already making an enormous contribution, we look forward to seeing his innovative research continue to translate into immense benefits for society.

When he’s not working on fine tuning the exoskeleton robot or inspiring his students, Denny enjoys spending time with his wife and two kids.